No sex, please, I'm young

2005: The decline of sex -

Am I bored of sex? Let's see. No. But change the emphasis slightly: am I bored of being force-fed its likeness 24 hours a day? Yes. I object to being bombarded with pop-up ads for "hot teen action!!!" while surfing the net in search of enlightenment on some entirely unrelated subject (I can find my own porn in my own time, thanks very much). The knowledge that, should I be a little short of ideas for a female friend's birthday present, I could pop in to Boots and buy her a vibrator along with my mouthwash makes me want to chew my arm off in prudish revulsion. I have strong reservations about my 13-year-old sister setting her MSN Messenger name as "I'm an angel really - the horns are just to hold the halo up", and the ideas it might give to anyone of that unlovely ilk, the pubescent boy.

Unquestionably, people of my age (22) have reached saturation point. So why am I so unconvinced by the advertising industry's recent revelation that young people are wearying of the facile presentation of sex in ads, and now require more subtle stimulation?

The "declining appeal of sex in advertising" is one of the themes of D_Code, a study of young "creative" consumers carried out by the research consultancy HeadlightVision and name-checked in recent doomsaying articles in Campaign and the Economist. Allison O'Keefe Wright, D_Code's global editor, says: "Young people are constantly bombarded with sexual imagery; it is a basic ingredient in the television programmes they watch, the movies they see, even the video games they play. As such, it simply blends into the background and no longer grabs their attention, making it a less effective tool for marketers trying to reach this audience."

Reasonable enough, so far as it goes. Yet I find it difficult to equate D_Code's definition of "creative consumers" (young people who "use subculture and brand choice to define and project their own identity") with the entire demographic

of what I would less sexily call "young people who buy things";

and, in particular, with my demographic - twentysomething men. The successful launches of the men's weeklies Zoo and Nuts in 2004 suggest that flesh-per-square-inch is still a viable marketing tool. Indeed, these publications are credited with reviving the men's magazine market, with sales across the genre up 29 per cent in the first half of 2004.

John Clements, fashion director at the upmarket men's monthly Arena, argues that the dynamic is changing: "Sex is still an important part of many brands' sell, and can be overt or explicit. However, it's done in a way that makes it seem part of the consumer's world, or something they aspire to." Clements relates this to male consumers, especially those at the upper end of the market that his magazine targets, becoming more "media-literate". Advertising agencies have to find new ways of seducing them. The "boys" to whom Eva Herzigova bade hello in that landmark 1990s Wonderbra advert have, apparently, become men.

The whole concept of change is tacitly centred around men. Too much of the advertising luminaries' jargon feels like a pat on the back for that Neanderthal, the young male: well done, you're subtle now.

And is it even true? As Zoo's editor, Paul Merrill, puts it: "It [using semi-naked women on the cover] was important for us early on, as it marked us out as a men's mag. As we get more established, who knows?"

The notion of the "creative consumer" might be a panacea for research consultancies whose brief is to produce ground-breaking findings, but most of us just aren't that self-conscious about our buying habits. No doubt, young people are inundated with and influenced by adverts to an unprecedented degree. We've all bought products on the strength of a slick and sexy ad, and we will continue to do so, because advertising people are good at their jobs.

Ultimately, however, it may be a bit of wishful thinking to suggest that we are all of a sudden more aware, harder to please, and that, as Claire Beale, editor of Campaign magazine, claims: "Our youth are trying to reclaim their lost innocence." (Read as "expect a lot of new ads featuring innocence").

To which I take my reply from the unreconstructed male lexicon: bollocks.

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