Sexy ads for girls

by Rob Horning

22 August 2006


Marketers who specialize in getting teen girls to buy things can always be counted on to have their chosen demographic’s best interests at heart. After all, marketers just want people to become who they really are, as the firms’ market research has revealed them to be. An ad provides useful information that empowers consumers; it never tries to befuddle them or attempt to exploit their insecurities. And marketers certainly wouldn’t want to reinforce any retrograde stereotypes. Never, no way. Here’s proof.

The “all-girl talent team” at marketing firm 3iYing, which “specializes in marketing to girls ages 15 to 25,” has a column in BusinessWeek this week in which they (somewhat self-servingly) criticize the existing state of advertising targeted at teenage girls. “Girls cringe at overtly sexual ads, yet paradoxically, marketing campaigns targeted at teen girls are sex-obsessed. It’s impossible for us to browse, shop, and surf online without being bombarded with groping bodies, akimbo legs, come-hither gazes, and other provocative imagery. Even when we escape to teen magazines, we find sex staring back at us.” They are so right; everyone knows that teen girls shouldn’t be interested in sex, and that if they are it needs to take a higher form then models pretending to make out in a photograph: “Girls want a deeper storyline. To us, sexuality is more than physical. It combines visual, intellectual, and emotional elements.” As for us guys, we just close our eyes, empty our minds and steel ourselves for some stoic, emotionless orgasms. Teenage girls are far more “sophisticated.” For them, sex comes with a storyline, probably one that ends happily ever after with wedding bells (and hopefully with lots of expensive clothes and jewelry and cosmetics other such products one has to market to girls purchased along the way).

In other words, what girls want is true love. “Often, ads are so sexual, it’s not clear what is really being sold. By relying on sex to sell your product you are not only getting lost in the steamy sea of marketing erotica, you’re not highlighting what you want us to love in the first place—your product.” Girls are ready and waiting to fall in love with branded objects, if only advertisers would stop treating them as if they enjoyed sex for its own sake. That, as “modern girls know,” is “raunchy” and “cheap”: “Raunchy is when the message is strictly graphic and physical, when there is no mystery, romance, sincerity or deeper meaning. Raunchy campaigns communicate only one idea—‘girl wants some’—using the same visual messaging typical of pornography. Raunchy is a cheap play for attention. It shows lack of imagination and depth in the people and brands that use it.”  Girls, you see, don’t “want.” Such passion would be unseemly, base and immoral, as well as being shallow and without imagination. And looking raunchy, i.e. expressing sexual desire, just gives men an excuse to exploit you. “When a girl acts or dresses raunchy she doesn’t get respect, at least no one takes the time to look beyond her body and appreciate her mind. The raunchy look signals to every nearby male ‘Hi! I’m game for action.’ ” A “modern girl” should never seek action. She is a passive, frail flower, who’d best wait for the true love that comes looking for her. She understands a true courtier when he comes calling. “If the marketing community thinks [a sexy ad] is what girls find hip and edgy, then they grossly underestimate how mature and cultured we are. Girls’ aesthetic tastes and relationship requirements are sophisticated. So if you want your messages to be relevant, give us more than animal urges.” Girls don’t want something shallow in their relationship with an ad; they want something deep and lasting. They want a sophisticated relationship. They want their ads to be polite, gentlemanly. If you can’t trust an ad to be hip, sophisticated and relevant, what can you trust? Luckily modern girls have lots of products to choose from when looking for a knight in shining armor: “We girls have more product options than ever and very limited time to be hooked before we turn our attention to the next product or advertisement. In this competitive environment, advertising must deliver visually, intellectually, and emotionally interesting content that builds the brand and seduces us. Marketers must demonstrate the unique properties of a product so that we instantly appreciate its relevance in our life and fantasies.”

I can’t speak for teenage girls, but I really doubt they are pining for ads that will absorb more of their attention and be more “relevant”. I don’t know that I believe stylized eroticism is “irrelevant” in that respect. (In fact, research suggests women’s brains react quickly and strongly to erotic images.) I’d guess girls don’t need emotional connection with an ad, even if they do expect it from their teen boyfriends (though I wonder if that requirement is not exaggerated). And they are probably better served by sexualized ads that let at least them know how much of the world intends to see them and allow them to react accordingly. To be fair, I agree with this 3iYing statement entirely (though the grammar seems a bit off): “Sensitivity, playfulness, authenticity, and emotional expression between couples is far more fascinating than being a trinket for men to play with.” I just don’t believe marketers are in any position to lecture anyone about “authenticity.”

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