Does sex really sell? Explicit print, TV ads arouse debate Commercials are risque business as standards loosen

September 29, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

New York -- The television commercial's soundtrack is saying something about a miniskirt and black tights made by Anne Klein. But who's listening? On the screen, a woman, back to the camera and apparently astride another figure, is taking off her bra and beginning to move.

The "bra spot" recently ran on CBS in New York, Los Angeles and a few other cities. The other two major networks accepted a similar, slightly less explicit spot that also showed, as the networks say, "simulated intercourse."

What's going on? Call it the new morality sweeping Madison Avenue. Advertising involving sex is more permissible than ever before -- on the air, on billboards and in print.

Meanwhile, though, ads touching on the environment or nutrition are coming under ever-tighter constraints. If Americans have become less sensitive about sexy ads, they're increasingly irate about claims involving food and Mother Earth.

Attorney generals in Maryland and other states are battling companies over such issues as the fat content of milk, the number of calories in "light" cheesecake, and the sodium content of soups. Congress has mandated that public service spots on nutrition be shown on children's television shows, notable for their gluttonous consumption of sugared cereal ads, beginning in January. And in Baltimore and New York, some neighborhood leaders are fighting to eliminate billboards touting alcohol and tobacco.

"While we will tolerate an expansion in areas that may offend our prurient interests, we are not prepared to do that with products ++ that affect our quality of life," said Stuart Lee Friedel, an attorney with the New York-based law firm of Davis & Gilbert. Mr. Friedel, who specializes in advertising, includes Noxell Corp. among his clients.

One example: A magazine ad for Procter & Gamble disposable diapers that shows a hand holding earth. That, the copy suggests, is how the diapers appear 90 days after being tossed in the trash.

"It is nonsense, and it is under investigation," Mark Corwin, assistant New York state attorney general, told ad industry lawyers at a conference here last week. Only two weeks ago, the New York City Consumer Affairs Department reached an out-of-court settlement with Procter & Gamble, prohibiting it from running the ad in any publication sold in New York.

Clearly, advertising standards are changing.

Once even routine ads for some practical, everyday items were shunned. "Hygiene products, deodorants, laxatives . . . and similar products are generally not accepted," the NBC code of 1943 noted. "Products which are not primarily designed to perform these indicated functions are acceptable only when advertising avoids mentioning such functions."

Not long ago, an Anne Klein spot showing a man kissing a woman, and beginning to unbutton her shirt, was held off the air by leery network censors, recalled Nancy Lueck, company vice president.

Drawing a line

"Over the last few years, commercial content, like programming, has gone through a significant maturing process. Sex is a driving force. 1990s' reality is not to be denied," said Rick Gitter, NBC vice president for advertising standards.

Today, women can model lingerie or even breast-feed a child (in a Gerber ad) on television. Indeed, the networks have developed an entire category for advertisements commonly known as "genital products."

Magazines have similarly loosened up. Consider a much-noted 116-page Calvin Klein insert in New York and Los Angeles editions of Vanity Fair, described by Advertising Age as "boy meets girl, boy meets boy, boy meets self." That's merely the most striking example of a vast range of jeans, lingerie and cosmetics ads that once would have been relegated to Playboy or Penthouse but now are appearing in upscale mainstream publications.

Does it go too far?

"There's a fine line between doing something new, different and arresting, and angering your customer," said Anne Klein's Ms. Lueck. But her company's ad, probably the most striking of all carried in the mainstream medium, has inspired only a few negative letters and a tremendous amount of attention. "We wanted the women to say, 'Hey,' and we've gotten a fantastic response."

The line between offensive and effective advertising has never been clear.

On a practical level, offensive commercials spoil their commercial intent. But notions of what is offensive change constantly. Legally, the climate has been no more consistent. Advertisements have never been granted the unqualified rights of free speech held by books, articles or news programs.

Advertising standards have always been defined by the public's tolerance and the shifting moods of courts and government agencies. Courts began giving limited protection to ads in the 1960s, when a paid opinion piece in the New York Times was considered free speech.

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