In a 1991 Pepsi commercial, supermodel Cindy Crawford steps out of a red Lamborghini at a remote roadside rest stop. Wearing a white tank top and denim cut-off shorts, she flicks her hair and saunters over to a vending machine, where she buys--and drinks--a can of ice-cold Pepsi. She's oblivious to the two young boys who are watching, spellbound.
The Pepsi commercial, which was created by Omnicom agency BBDO and last aired during the Super Bowl 17 years ago, was rated as the sexiest TV commercial among 35 viewed by eight judges from the advertising industry.
The ad vets rated it and several other sexy-yet-understated spots higher than more explicit commercials, including a Carl's Jr. commercial featuring Paris Hilton washing a car and a perfume spot with Britney Spears hooking up with a fellow guest in a hotel. The judges said they liked racy ads that left something to the imagination. They thought that even sexy ads should relate to a product's supposed benefits.
"The sexiest spots are suggestive, but they aren't over the top," says Bill McCuddy, ad critic for Forbes. Market research firm Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research in New York City provided handheld meters that the judges used to vote on the commercials. Each judge had a meter with a dial that allowed them to record second-by-second reactions to each of the ads.
The judges agreed that the simplest images are often the steamiest. The 2007 ad for Johnson & Johnson's Rembrandt tooth-whitening products shows a couple kissing passionately and the tagline "Take Care of Your Mouth. It Can be Brilliant." The intimate image is "sexy and human--and more realistic," says Michael Lebowitz, founder and chief executive of Brooklyn digital agency Big Spaceship.
The opposite is true of slapstick, sophomoric humor in ads that feature women as over-the-top sex-crazed creatures. Those offenders? GoDaddy.com, the domain name registrar; Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo; and Old Milwaukee beer, now owned by Pabst Brewing Company. An ad featuring the overly endowed, blond "Swedish bikini team" in a 1991 commercial got a collective eye roll from the Forbes judges. "These spots show me that we have a very limited palette," says Bill Bruce, chairman and chief creative office of BBDO New York. "It becomes not smart and offensive very quickly."
The story doesn't need to be deep for the ad to be effective. The judges loved a 2008 Victoria's Secret commercial that featured model Adriana Lima playing with a football while decked out in a skimpy black camisole. Its tagline: "Victoria's Secret would like to remind you the games will soon be over. Let the real games begin." "It's a human truth," says Richard Kirshenbaum, the co-chairman and founder of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York. "Women often feel ignored during the Super Bowl. And after the game is over, they want attention."
Only one commercial on the Forbes list--a 1994 Diet Coke ad--depicted a man as the sole sex object. In the spot, an office full of women gather at a window to ogle a buff construction worker as he pulls off his shirt and quaffs a soda. "The Diet Coke ad was a breakthrough," says Liz Vanzura, an Emerson College professor and the former global marketing director at Cadillac. "It was the first time that a marketer turned the table and showed women appreciating male bodies."
At a time when everyday clothes often leave little to the imagination and the Internet allows people to be one click away from the raciest content, what's attention-grabbing is sometimes what isn't shown. "You can't out-crass the Internet," says Benjamin Palmer, co-founder and chief executive of the Barbarian Group in New York. Adds Greg Stern, chief executive of Butler Shine Stern & Partners, an ad agency in Sausalito, Calif., "Today the tease it's what's sexy."
The judges all liked a Levi's spot from 2000. In it, model Daniel Pestova removes her jeans and puts them on a railroad track right before a train goes by. Then she pulls on her newly short jeans as train passengers watch. The subtle, sexy spot helped Levi's to reposition its brand as fashionable. "At the time they were getting ordinary and needed a kick," says Vanzura. "That ad made you think that Levi's jeans were a sexy product. Maybe you would buy them instead of Calvin Kleins."
A number of older ads still seem sexy today, say the Forbes judges. "With the older stuff, people were smarter. They had to wrap sex into a story to make it work," says Martin Puris, chairman and chief executive of New York's puris.bernbach.partners. "Today sexy commercials feel more homogenized." The judges describe Chanel No. 5 perfume's classic 1979 commercial, which features a bronze-skinned couple meeting each other at a desolate pool, as "beautiful," "sensual" and "the ultimate fantasy." They say that the most effective celebrity endorsement was the pairing of Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath in a 1967 ad for Noxzema shaving cream. "They took a mundane, boring category and used celebrities to make it stand out," says Vanzura. "The ad takes you from 'I'm going to get shaving cream' to 'I'm going to get that brand of shaving cream.'"
Some older ads are still sexy, but would never run today. Two legendary Calvin Klein commercials feature prominently on the list. In one, then-15-year-old Brooke Shields lies on the ground while she wriggles into a pair of skin-tight Calvin Klein jeans. In another, the camera pans across her body before she purrs the memorable line, "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
"Today you'd have moms on the Internet saying 'You're exploiting young kids!'" says Vanzura.