In a recent post I put forward the idea that sex used in the advertising of nonsexual products betrays products of no particular distinction. At root, however, the previous post was not about advertising. Rather, it was the tip of the iceberg in a larger conversation about the decision to use (or, by extension, not use) sex in any kind of authored content.
The question is not why sex is used in commercials or authored works. We know why it’s used. Our animal brains are hard-wired for sex, apart from any additional sociological or psychological interest we may add as we grow and develop in whatever culture we happen to live in. Sex does in fact sell — meaning attract and hold consumer interest — but that’s not what I’m interested in. Rather, I’m interested in what motivates creators to use sex and its sure-fire, brain-simple appeal in any given instance, and particularly in stories.
To pursue this larger conversation it’s necessary to define what I mean by sex in this context, and I’m aware of the difficulty in doing so. Given that a bulletproof definition of obscenity famously evaded the scholarly noggins at the U.S. Supreme Court, I know I’m not going to be able to pin down something even more nebulous. So with the understanding that any definition offered would be imprecise (if not subjective), and limiting the following definition to posts on this subject, I propose:
sex = images and descriptions of sex that are
graphic, literal or representative of sexual acts.
Pornographic imagery and text would meet this test. A literary reference or allusion to two people making love would fail this test. Paris Hilton’s Carl’s Jr. commercial meets this test. Paris Hilton’s FILA commercial fails this test.
I could go on and on with examples, and I’m equally certain you could find hair-splitting counterexamples that would vex or void my definition. To sidestep this kind of skirmish I’m going to cling to a belief that in some way we all understand what I’m talking about. We may draw the line in different places, but we all agree there is a line there somewhere. (If it helps, feel free to imagine your own over-the-line egregious examples whenever I use the word sex as defined above.)
In the previous post, titled Sex Tells, I chose to focus on the advertising of nonsexual items using sexual content because I wanted to show as clearly as possible that an authorial choice to use sex may tell us more about a product than the content creator(s) intend. To see the utility of the sex question — Why is sex being used to attract and hold interest in this instance? — here’s the logical process I followed to reach my conclusion in that earlier post:
- Why did Carl’s Jr. pay Paris Hilton to act like like a stripper?
Because Carl’s Jr. knows that sex sells. As a corporation, they intend to attract consumer eyeballs with Paris Hilton’s homage to the car washing scene in Cool Hand Luke, then slip their branding in while everyone is oggling the suds.
That’s a Carl’s-Jr.-specific analysis of the obvious question and answer I mentioned above. But note that your average viewer never even gets this far. They don’t ask any questions about what’s put in front of them — they just watch. Which is precisely why sex works to attract and hold audience interest.
Of the people who do ask such questions, however, ninety-nine percent stop at this point and simply observe that sex is being used to attract attention. This observation may be accompanied with derisive or enthusiastic commentary, but that’s the end of the analysis. The conclusion is that sex is being used because it works, and it does — yet that tells us nothing about why sex was used in that particular instance.
What I want you to do is take the next step. Each time you see sex being used in authored content — whether it’s advertising or entertainment or anything else — I want you to ask why the content creator(s) chose sex and it’s sure-fire, brain-simple ability to attract and hold interest, as against any other possible approach to the same content demand.
Here’s how that plays out with the Carl’s Jr. ad.
- Why sex? Why not advertise an aspect of the company’s products?
Because there is nothing unique, outstanding, different or otherwise important to convey about Carl’s Jr.’s food. It’s generic. It’s cheesburger fat + french-fry salt and grease + soon-to-metabolize-to-fat beverage sugar. It’s your future heart attack. They know it and you know it, and they know you know it. So they’re using something else — sex — to change the channel on all that high-calorie product goodness.
The first question, the only one most people ever ask, wonders why sex is used relative to the audience. Inevitably the answer is always the same: images and descriptions of sex get our attention, because we are sexual beings hardwired to be interested in sex.
By asking the second question we’re able to extrapolate a larger general truth about how ads using sex relate to a broader market category: nonsexual products that use sexual advertising are inherently generic because the decision to use sex speaks to a general lack of other product qualities to hype.
There are, of course, other relationships between sexy ads and products. To see the various permutations more clearly, consider the following four categories of products that can be marketed using sex:
- Nonsexual items: e.g. a lawn tractor
Sexy ads do not reflect the product’s intended use, and, as already noted, betray the product’s mediocrity. Note, too, as with the Carl’s Jr. commercial, that you can discern all of this simply by observing the ad. You don’t need to know anything about the product or have direct experience with it in order to know that the product is generic.
- Nonsexual authored content: e.g. a book of recipes
Sexy ads do not reflect the product’s content, but here you won’t know you’ve been deceived until you plunk your money down and experience the content.
- Sexual items: e.g. condoms, lubricants
Sexy ads reflect the product’s intended use.
- Sexual authored content: e.g. erotica of any stripe
Sexy ads reflect the product’s content.
Looking at these categories it’s obvious that we don’t have to ask why sexy ads are being used to sell sexual items, because that relationship makes sense. Yes, you can always go a bump or grind too far in anything, but unlike sexy ads for nonsexual items there’s no inherent disconnect. And since we’ve already dealt with sexy ads for nonsexual items that leaves us with analyzing the relationship between sexy ads and various types of authored content. (I define authored content to be everything from books to movies to music CD’s, to stage plays, musicals, web sites, etc.)
The relationship of sexy ads to authored content is more complicated, for two reasons already noted. First, unlike physical items, authored products may either include or not include sex, but you can’t tell just by looking at them. Where condoms and lawn tractors are physical objects, and their relationship to sex is intrinsic, authored products (books, movies, etc.) may vary in sexual content even though they look essentially the same. (Hence the content warning labels and/or ratings systems that inevitably appear on authored media, and particularly on products sold to or aimed at children.) Second, even if ads for authored content promise sex, you can’t know whether sex has been included until you experience the content.
Again, I’m not concerned with advertising per se, or even whether any sexual ad is honest or accurate. When someone puts together a sexy ad for nonsexual content — as in the recipe book example above — there’s little else to note beyond the fact that the content is almost certainly generic, for the same reasoning mentioned earlier in the Carl’s Jr. example. (The little else we might note is the fact that the people advertising the product intentionally deceived you in order to get at your money.)
However, authored content that is sexual in nature or contains sex, prompts the same question prompted by sexual ads: Why is sex being used to attract attention? Put another way, of the four categories of products that can be advertised in a sexy way, there’s only one product category that is analogous to advertising in the sense that someone somewhere made a choice about whether or not to add sex to the product. That product category is sexual authored content.
By definition, any authored content that contains sex (as defined above) meets the criteria for inclusion. A recipe book with pornographic images qualifies. Great literature written by a great author which contains graphic descriptions of sex qualifies. If there’s sex in there, and someone authored it, it qualifies. But just as I’m not concerned with the veracity or utility of advertising that contains sex, I’m not concerned with any moral questions about the inclusion of sex in authored content, whether that be advertising, an end product, or both. There may be moral aspects to such decisions, but what I want you to focus on is a craft question.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but just as there is no inherent need to include sex in an ad for lawn fertilizer or umbrellas, sex (as defined above) is not inherent in any story or authored content. In all cases, no matter what the subject matter, sex (as defined above) has to be consciously added by the creators of that content. Yes, some stories may be all about sex at a plot level, and some characters may be sex-obsessed, but at an authorial level you can always tell a story about sex without graphic descriptions or depictions of sex.
As an artist you may disagree with that kind of choice for many reasons — and I might agree that your reasons are valid — but that doesn’t alter the fact that sexual acts, relationships and proclivities can be, and have been, dealt with in an oblique manner in all forms of authored content. (If the list of graphic terms for genitals and sex acts is extensive and exhaustive, so is the list of euphemism and allusions for the same subject matter.)
What this means, simply, is that graphic depictions and descriptions of sex are always an authorial choice. Which leads, again, to the central question: for any given authorial instance, why is sex (as defined above) being used to attract (in advertising) or hold (in products) our attention? We know sex will do these things, but we also know that it’s an authorial choice to present the audience with that kind of content. Why make the choice, and what can we say about the products involved, or even about the creators of those product?
Obviously, this is a huge subject with many aspects. I also confess to feeling as if the very subject implies or condones moralizing or censorship, and I’m trying hard to steer clear of such issues. For the record, I’m not against you writing whatever you want to write, whatever your reasons. I believe in free speech, which is to say that I don’t think the government should be able to jail you or punish you for what you write — provided it’s not a stick-up note, or something else abetting a crime. Having said that, if what you want to write involves, say, graphic depictions of sexual violence against women or children, as an individual I think it’s fair for me to disapprove of your work on a moral level, and even to conclude that your work says something about you, because I’m not the government. Fully stated: my position is that you get to write what you want, but I’m not obligated as an individual to give you a free pass on what you write, either as an artist or as a human being.
In sum, that’s the groundwork for what I hope will be a series of interesting posts on how the inclusion of sex works or doesn’t work to achieve intended effects in authored works. Because these posts will probably be interrupted by other items of note, I will note the continuation of the series using both tags and on-blog references.
In the next post on this subject I’ll try to grapple with the various reasons that sex is added to authored products — beyond the obvious fact that it attracts and holds the attention of the audience. It’s a big subject, but I think it also leads to a lot of interesting questions, issues and conclusions.
— Mark Barrett