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Selling Power of Sex Is Invading the Ads of Staid Industries

February 03, 1987|BRUCE HOROVITZ

The art department at Outdoor Retailer magazine is usually a pretty quiet place.

Over the years, artists at the trade magazine in South Laguna Beach have grown accustomed to look-alike ads. After all, how many ways can you advertise camping equipment? But a few weeks ago, the magazine's art department was abuzz, as artists gathered around one ad in particular.

Holly Dennis, the magazine's executive publisher, stepped out of her office to investigate. Her discovery: an ad, submitted for publication, that was blatantly sexual. It showed a nearly naked woman--with a tiny backpack covering her buttocks--embracing a creature that is half man and half goat. All of this is taking place under the headline, "Get Carried Away"--a supposed reference to backpacks.

That's right, backpacks. The ad is not for a spicy new brand of perfume or a racy new make of designer jeans. With competitive pressures as a spur, blatantly sexual ads are cropping up in areas they never did before. Today, even backpacks fall victim to one of the ad world's oldest adages: Sex sells.

"Ours has been an industry that is traditionally quiet in its advertising and marketing," said Dennis, who reluctantly ran the ad last month. "Now, some companies are trying to shock people into recognizing who they are."

The ad was placed by Outdoor Products, a division of the Los Angeles-based Outdoor Recreation Group. "We were looking for a fresh approach," explained Joel Altshule, president and chief executive of Outdoor Recreation. The amorous couple in the ad, he said, were actually a "live representation" of a 212-year-old statue by the French sculptor Coldion.

"We wanted people to sit up and take notice," said Brian Hardwick, president and creative director of Bryan Hardwick Associates, the Palos Verdes ad firm that created the campaign. "But you see less in that ad than you see in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue."

Don't tell that to Sports Illustrated. The magazine turned down the Outdoor Products ad, said Dave Long, national advertising manager at Sports Illustrated. But, he said, "our rejecting it won't put a damper on the market." After all, he said, the trend toward "this sort of explicit advertising has been increasing."

Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, also turned down the ad, and lost out on a $6,000 billing. "When something is in bad taste, you just kind of know it," explained James Keough, editor and publisher of the magazine.

"These kinds of ads stop people--and they remember them--but for all the wrong reasons," said Al Hampel, president of Hampel Creative, a New York consulting firm. "It's an attempt to be clever at any cost."

Although it's acceptable to use sexual images in some types of advertising, "the backpack ad is coming from left field," said Eugene B. Cofsky, West Coast president of Diener, Hauser, Bates Co., a Los Angeles ad firm that often produces sexually themed ads for such big-name entertainment clients as Paramount Pictures Corp. "It would be like our using a leggy blonde to sell Citizen Kane."

Mum on Army Pitch

Even in the ad business, the rich keep getting richer. But they don't always like to talk about it. Early last week, Young & Rubicam--one of the most profitable U.S. ad agencies--landed the much-coveted $100-million U.S. Army account. In the past year, the agency says it has picked up more than $500 million in new billings while losing about $55 million.

But Y&R is still mum about how it might change the highly effective "Be All That You Can Be" campaign that was created by N W Ayer. A company spokesman said that Y&R will "not necessarily" dump the successful image that Ayer created of the Army as a place that builds character. Y&R is expected to have some commercials ready to roll within two months.

JWT Drama Continues

Don't look for an unfriendly takeover attempt of JWT Group, the scene of last week's management melee. So says Norman Campbell, chairman of a competing New York ad firm, BBDO Worldwide. And despite persistent industry talk to the contrary, Campbell doesn't believe such a hostile action could work. "It would be a bad risk in a service business like an ad agency," he said. "It's not like buying a company that makes bolts and screws. In 90 days, all of the creative talent can be gone."

But it is all those costly layers of creative talent that continue to gnaw away at JWT Group's profits, says Edward H. Meyer, chairman of New York-based Grey Advertising. Sure, JWT's ad division, J. Walter Thompson Co., has hired some of the best creative minds in the business, but it may be at too high a cost. "It's like making a movie," said Meyer. "You can have a Redford and a Newman for $20 million each--and you'll probably have a big box office. But you still might not be left with anything when it's all over."

Meanwhile, the man to watch: JWT Chairman Don Johnston, who ousted the two top officials at J. Walter Thompson after they talked about a buyout of the ad division. Now ad execs are asking how long will Johnston last.

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