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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 4 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

This week, President Obama made one of those statements he probably wanted to retract as soon as he expressed it. He was lauding Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, for her many accomplishments and her legal experience, when he did something guys of another era used to do all the time — he complimented Ms. Harris for being attractive. Instantly, attractive women felt marginalized (He only admires her for her looks.), unattractive women felt even more marginalized (I bet he’d never say that about me.), attractive men were confused (What’s wrong with that?), and unattractive men were also confused (What’s wrong with that?).  Surely, the President got a later earful from the First Lady and his two daughters. All around it was an awkward moment that momentarily tilted the world off its access.


Meanwhile in the world of advertising, super models are the daily norm and sensitivities be damned. Attractive people have always been used in commercials and catalogs to build brands and sell products. When that dynamic is tampered with, as GoDaddy did in their commercial during the last SuperBowl, having super model Bar Refaeli soulfully kiss computer nerd Walter, to illustrate the blending of sexy and smart, something doesn’t feel right (maybe having Danica Patrick announce the moment?). In this case, the situation was meant for comic effect, but there was something cruel about it. I know the young man wasn’t complaining about having to do take after interminable take to get the camera angle right, but he was clearly the butt of a joke in front of that audience of 108.4 million viewers. At times, we are overly sensitive, while at others like this one, we aren’t nearly sensitive enough. Take Target this week and their “manatee grey” plus size dress. Did they think anyone (everyone?) was going to miss that inference?

The Lonesome Girl learns how to make a dress.

All of which brings me back to the “100 Greatest Advertisements” collection, which features some ads that play on sensitive subjects, especially on women’s insecurities. “The Diary of a Lonesome Girl” makes every other copy-heavy ad seem like haiku. But it is worth a read to get a sense of the pitch for the Woman’s Institute, which is a mail order teaching curriculum. In this case, the course is on dress-making and it is the salvation of the Lonesome Girl from the headline. The ad is a diary account of a young lady who is practically destitute, living at home, sequestered in her room because she can’t afford to go to her neighbor’s parties, tormented because she can hear those parties and knows that her neighbor is dancing with Tom, and embarrassed that she only owns that old blue crepe dress. Since President Obama wasn’t around at the time to lift her spirits by calling her attractive, the narrator of the ad has to turn to the Woman’s Institute, which she does, discovers the art of dress making, and eventually she throws her own parties and wows Tom and her neighbor. I’ll never worry about over-promising in one of my ads again.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

There are two ads that follow, further unnerving women readers who are unattached. An early ad for Listerine reveals why one woman is often a “Bridesmaid but Never a Bride.” Evidently, because she cannot smell her own breath, the thought of halitosis has never occurred to her. The ushers’ shriveled-up boutonnieres from the last 8 weddings never raised a red flag?

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Meanwhile, if we think teeth whitening strips and treatments are a recent obsession, Pepsodent can remind us that we’ve been concerned with dingy-colored teeth for a very long time. Once again, a woman’s appearance is hugely important to her. And sometimes it is a matter of Presidential importance.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Finally, this N.W. Ayer ad for DeBeers was one of many to launch a long association between diamond jewelry and advertising (1939-1947), and the famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever.”  One thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the word “attractive,” it is safe to say in public that women find diamonds very attractive.

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Lane Bryant's new lingerie spot throws networks a curve.

Lane Bryant's new lingerie spot throws networks a curve.

There aren’t many sexual taboos left in the entertainment industry, but the advertising world can’t be quite as adventurous since commerce and national tv audiences are involved. However, in the past few weeks, a surprising controversy has emerged — a commercial for Lane Bryant promoting plus size women’s lingerie has actually gotten bounced at several networks (ABC, Fox). The refusal to air the spot has of course generated a wealth of free publicity and no doubt a lot of lingerie sales.

Here is a link to a TV Guide article and which contains a video link to the spot in question:


After viewing the commercial, I have to admit to being perplexed. The spot is no more and no less racy than commercials aired for years by Victoria’s Secret. What were the networks in question thinking? Plus size women aren’t interested in lacy lingerie? Men won’t pay attention to plus size women in lacy lingerie? Lane Bryant ads would create an unhealthy demand for Peter Paul Ruben’s paintings at Sotheby’s?

This is a very well-made commercial perfectly pitched. Sexy women shot erotically to sell bras and panties was the goal. Mission accomplished and then some. The ensuing flap has generated a wealth of free publicity and viral video viewings and eventual reversal of the network decisions.

It’s when sex is used to sell everything from cheeseburgers to shop tools that we get into the creative arena of “borrowed interest.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that advertisers leave themselves open to criticism and controversy when they stretch the boundaries of taste and there is a tenuous link to the product being promoted.

The current king of this kind of advertising is GoDaddy.com. The web hosting provider made an instant international name for itself by featuring memorably endowed models in SuperBowl ads that ended enticingly with the flash of their web address and the promise of even more provocative footage online.

Subsequent outings have employed celebrity spokespeople like easy-on-the-eyes racecar driver Danica Patrick. At a time when the entire family visits their local Hooters franchise for the wings, the GoDaddy spots have become almost demure. That brings me to the latest campaign, again featuring Danica Patrick, her family, but most notably her grandmother.

Since everyone’s universal “ick factor” about sex seems to be accidentally walking into your parents’ bedroom at an inopportune moment, it seems like GoDaddy is flirting with a new taboo — forcing viewers to imagine their grandparents having sex. Is this anyway to sell IT services?

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