Allow me to set the stage. Picture the Roman Coliseum in Ancient Rome where as many as 50,000 spectators would gather to see gladiator fights, prisoners battle with lions and wild animal hunts. Now think bigger and gaudier. This Sunday at Super Bowl XLVI, 68,000 will gather at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and over 100 Million will watch on TV and the internet.
Most will be eating and drinking to excess and the sole focus will be entertainment. The game will be intense. Two teams vying for a large paycheck and the most important distinction of their lives: that of "champions."
They will have been worked into a frenzy by coaches and teammates assuring them that this chance may never come again so they should leave everything on the field. Once on the field they will hit each other with the force of a car crash, over and over again. Every move they make will be scrutinized and important moments that happen on the field and the sidelines will be replayed over and over again.
Periodically, throughout the game necessary breaks will be taken so the players can rest and the networks can earn money by showing advertisements for 30 and 60 second time slots they have sold for as much as $4 million dollars a slot. The purchasers of those time slots will have those scant seconds to make a positive connection with an audience that is half in the tank and available to be entertained, but not overtly sold to. This is the story of why advertisers try to use sex to sell in their Super Bowl Ads.
According to the creator of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, we are obsessed with sex. It constantly occupies our minds both consciously and unconsciously. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Sex Research, men had sex thoughts an average of 19 times a day. Sex is the most searched term on the internet. It is therefore, not surprising that, in an effort to cut through the clutter advertisers use sex.
GoDaddy, the perennial pimp of Super Bowl commercials has hired Danica Patrick, Jillian Michaels and the Pussycat Dolls and H&M strangely is going with David Beckham.
From what I've seen, the spots do a pretty fair job at titillation considering that on network TV you really can't show anything or do anything. From an eye-candy perspective, the stars are, for the most part (I ain't rating Beckham) attractive. But do the ads work?
Advertising Professor Jef. I. Richards is credited with having said: "Sex sells. But only if you're selling sex." GoDaddy might argue that they successfully used sex in their 2005 Super Bowl ad to create name recognition. So, why, seven years later are they still using it?
It could be that they believe it works. They started advertising as a small company with about a 16 percent share of the market and now boast a better than 50 percent share of the market and over a billion in sales. It has been viewed as polarizing but then again, no one sees you purchase a web domain from GoDaddy so there is no pressure not to be viewed as sexist.
And finally, they are one of the few big advertisers in their category. I bet you can't name any other of the top five web-hosting providers. The other advertisers don't have sex as their primary marketing strategy. They have pulled it out for the Super Bowl as a special tact for this occasion. If you take a look at the top 15 Super Bowl commercials of all time you'll find that sex only finds the list twice: Joe Namath and Farah Fawcett for Noxzema and Cindy Crawford for Pepsi. The Xerox Monk, Mean Joe Greene for Coke, Apple's breakthrough 1984 ad, Michael Jordan and Larry Byrd playing one-on-one for McDonalds, The Budweiser Frogs, Monster.com's cinematic "When I grow Up", E*TRADE's Monkeys, EDS's Cat Herders, Linebacker Terry Tate for Reebok, Budweiser's Clydesdales, Brad Pitt for Heineken and Betty White for Snickers all won with humor and star power. And each (with varying degrees of success) manages to connect the activity on the screen to a product attribute.
I suspect that like in years past this year's attempts to use sex will be middle-of-the road efforts that might catch your eye but fail to connect with audience at the deeper level needed to initiate a sell or spur consumer brand interest. The strategic problem that is almost impossible to overcome when using this tactic is that connecting a brand benefit to sex is a long shot unless like the professor says that's what you're selling.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.
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