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29 January 2001

Come on: look at me!

With so many competing products, advertising has to work harder than ever. John Lloyd explains how

By John Lloyd

Advertising now is among the most important media of the advanced world. One of its best theorists, the Australian Paulie Boutlis, calls it “the very public conscience of the new society”, and says that any residual guilt felt by admen and women over their profession should be cast aside, because both the creators of advertising and its audience are complicit in an “open, diffuse and indeterminate” universe. One of its most successful practitioners, Al Young, the senior creative director at the St Luke’s agency, says that advertising is “social messages”, that he and his colleagues are “trying to give a purpose to the brands” they advertise. Both agree, however, that the prime purpose is to grab attention; it is simply that attention-grabbing techniques have changed significantly. They have done so in two particular ways: first, in enlisting pornography; second, in enlisting social conscience.

Over the past year, billboards have carried a number of campaigns showing women, naked or barely clothed, with their legs spread, apparently about to masturbate, or waiting for a man to lick them or enter them. One of the ads, for Gossard, showed a woman in hazy mid-shot, on a bed, her head flung back as if in ecstasy, with the line “Put him on his knees”. The single entendre was that she was enjoying cunnilingus. A campaign for Versace – which appears even in magazines such as Time – shows a blonde woman in a bedroom, wearing little more than a (presumably Versace) black suspender belt and stockings – the classic outfit for soft porn. In one ad, she lies, as in post-coital sleep, next to a fully clothed man. In another, she lies on a bed, her hand poised pre- masturbatorily above her crotch, just covered by a robe.

On London buses, Folke, the clothing company, features women with their legs open, looking expectantly towards the viewer in the car behind. Anna Friel, a TV star in a low-cut gown, invites customers to “come to bed” on a reclining seat of Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class service. A magazine ad for Total Spectrum (“creative packaging solutions”) shows a large penis encased in white underpants, with the line: “So you’ve got a great product”. And everywhere, French Connection UK plasters its acronym, FCUK, with the transparent intent of equating its products with the Anglo-Saxon for copulation, now also the most common oath in English speech.

The ad on which attention focused was one for Yves St Laurent’s Opium brand of perfume. This featured the model Sophie Dahl, her skin marble white, lying on black satin sheets and wearing only a diamond choker and bracelet, and a pair of gold sandals. Her legs were spread: one hand caressed a breast, her eyes were closed, her lips open. The pose was one that a thousand directors of hotel-room soft porn had instructed their stars to adopt. It appeared in such magazines as Vogue last autumn – but, taking its place among the underwear ads that had long been flicking lightly at the edges of porn style, it flourished undisturbed. On 48-sheeters (as advertising people call their big posters), it was a different story – especially since BMP, Yves St Laurent’s agency, put them up in such provocative sites as outside the Welsh Assembly, one of the very few western legislatures outside the US where the members might be expected to be overtly God-fearing. Sure enough, one such member, Plaid Cymru’s Brian Hancock, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority.

He and 729 others. The ad attracted more opposition than anything since the Pope had been photo-montaged into a crash helmet to promote safe sex five years ago. It was deemed to be causing “serious or widespread offence”, and the order came for it to be taken down. But the resulting media coverage and reproduction of the image has been beyond anything that the advertisers could have bought.

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Al Young of the agency St Luke’s is candid about the mechanism now in play. However, it is not always about sex. One of the most successful of the St Luke’s campaigns has been for the Swedish furniture store Ikea, featuring authoritarian Swedish managers bossing about clueless English staff. One ad abjured TV viewers to “Chuck out the chintz” – that is, get rid of awful English furniture and buy smart Swedish stuff. A preview copy was sent to Peter Hitchens, then a Daily Express columnist – because, Young and his colleagues knew, the English nationalist Hitchens could be counted on to rail against it. On cue, he did so; and on that cue, the Guardian counter-railed against his railings.

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In the past month, Young has been on Radio 4’s Today programme to defend another Ikea ad, this time in the Sun, which showed a tough Swedish manager locking his English subordinates in a room for 12 days to show them what waiting for a piece of furniture for that long is like (an Ikea selling-point is that customers pick up what they buy and take it home right away). This, says Young, was a triumph for his client, which spends only about one-fifth of other furniture stores’ media budgets.

“Everything now is in oversupply,” says Young. “You go to the shops, and there are 45 different kinds of everything. So the ads have to work very hard. Which means they have to get into spaces other than those bought for them.” In other words, what will play in the news media is now at least as important as the ads themselves.

Sex has become more explicit in ads because it has become so in the media – most vividly, over Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Oral sex and masturbation were given the platform of the Oval Office, and thus entered every media outlet from the New York Times to Pravda via the Lady. As Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, put it, the media now are “not liberal leaning but scandal leaning”, giving sexual explicitness the respectable coating of investigative journalism. At the same time, the porn industry has billowed: 30 years ago, the industry was worth between $5m and $10m; now it is worth $10bn in the US alone, much more than the value of Hollywood’s output. It is also now moving to a level of explicitness and experimentation previously unplumbed (metaphor intended). In Talk magazine, the novelist Martin Amis reports that the present trend is towards “anals”, sometimes “DP”, ie, anal and vaginal penetration simultaneously – or beyond that, “double” or “triple anals”. With such images circling the earth or humming down the cables, an actress miming masturbation hardly counts as interesting – until the uncools start complaining and a nice little media storm erupts. Then everyone is happy – the uncools, who get something banned; the media people, who get far more space than they paid for; and the client, who gets the product excitingly identified with bad-girl or bad-boy-ness.

But the second advertising trend – social conscience – has been more contested. At the centre of this is the Milanese photographer Oliviero Toscani and his former client, the Italian clothing company Benetton. Over the past two decades, Toscani – whose father, a news photographer, took the famous shot of the murdered Mussolini and his mistress, hanging by their feet like trussed chickens – has blasted Benetton to fame. His “good message” shots were of young people of all colours – black, white, brown, yellow – in Benetton clothes. His “talk about” shots included a sexy nun, a black stallion mounting a white mare, and a family wailing over an Aids victim. Boutlis writes: “Like the tabloids or the movies, Benetton ads are sensationalism, entertainment values ironically masquerading as social conscience . . . this is the zero degree of advertising: a sign, by its very nature, wants to get noticed and nothing more.”

Luciano Benetton gave Toscani full artistic control of his company’s campaigns. No wonder – Benetton just sold colourful jumpers, but the “United Colours” campaign, in Al Young’s phrase, gave “the brand a purpose”. But Toscani wanted to go further. Access to thousands of poster sites and millions of magazine and newspaper pages was, he says, a responsibility as well as a contract – a responsibility to say something. And what he wanted to say, last year, was that the death penalty in the US was wrong.

He gained access to death rows in a number of US prisons – in at least one case, according to the prison authorities, fraudulently. He shot poignant pictures of men and women about to die. The campaign, carefully prepared, went up all over the US – just at the time when Benetton’s US executive vice-president, Carlo Tunioli, had signed a deal with Sears to incorporate Benetton in its superstores, giving the company a promise of 800 more outlets where previously it had fewer than 200. By the middle of last year, 400 had already been opened. Then the “Sentenced to Death” campaign began.

In Louisville, Kentucky, Donata and Emery Nelson saw, on a billboard, a picture of the man who had abducted, sodomised, tortured and then killed their teenage son. They were furious that Toscani had turned him into a martyr. They began a campaign, picketing Sears wherever they could get a pro-death sentence group together. Sears cancelled the Benetton contract. Toscani’s reaction was “to make me want to laugh, it’s so stupid . . . I am proud, really proud of what I did”. Benetton, however, fired Toscani; the great commercial-radical partnership was over.

But it may be more of a temporary retreat than a strategic defeat. Toscani went too far in advertising terms – the acres of publicity were outweighed by the damage he did his client in the lost deal with Sears. But he established a precedent: the overt and committed linking of advertising to social or civil libertarian causes.

The ad world, able to produce images, understand trends and catch attention, is now central to our lives, our imaginations and – its best minds now think – our consciences.