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Why Are Americans Uptight When it Comes to Sexual Innuendos in Advertising?

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Moving to the U.S. has certainly required adjustments on my part. One major thing I've noticed is the difference in sexual attitudes in the American advertising world. What is "no big deal" in Europe or Canada, is totally taboo in the U.S. Take this hilarious TV spot from the U.K. for example... Warning: If you find frontal nudity offensive, do not view.


The spot, created in 2006 for an Amstrad videophone, is risque to say the least, but certainly gets the message across with humor. The company was owned by Sir Alan Sugar, the U.K. entrepreneur and star of the BBC version of The Apprentice. Last summer, Amstrad was bought out by Sky, which is run by James Murdoch and counts Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. as its largest shareholder.
When TV censors ruled against GoDaddy's Super Bowl spot with Danica Patrick, not many were surprised. Imagine the U.S. censors reviewing this one! Its use of sexual humor isn't gratuitous or sexist - it's funny!
The Amstrad spot.
Why do you think Americans are more uptight with sexual humor and innuendos in marketing than in other countries?


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A Canadian who relocated to the U.S., Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of SOLUTIONS Marketing & Consulting LLC, a boutique marketing and communications agency located in Scottsdale, Arizona. During her career, Elaine has worked for, and with, many organizations, associations, and businesses, across North America, on marketing strategy and communications tactics.

From her earlier agency career assignments freelance copywriting Procter & Gamble, Nestlé Carnation, and Kraft materials, to “inside” senior-level marketing positions, Elaine’s passion for marketing has evolved to helping clients reach new heights through strategic brand-building, integrated marketing communications, and customer orientation.

She has been a contributing writer for The Business Journal and her articles have appeared in many publications, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Marketing News, The Arizona Republic, Advancing Philanthropy, and several association publications. She has been interviewed by CNN, Connect Magazine, and The Capitol Times, and her content was included in Guerrilla Marketing for Nonprofits by Jay Conrad Levinson, Frank Adkins, and Chris Forbes. Nonprofit Consulting Essentials by Penelope Cagney. and Share of Mind, Share of Heart by Sybil F. Stershic.

Elaine is a Faculty Associate at the Arizona State University Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation and a professional member of the National Speakers Association – she does keynotes and presentations on business and nonprofit marketing, branding, customer orientation, and cause marketing at conferences and meetings.

Elaine’s career has also included stints as a cookbook author, teacher, singer, and television show host. A golf and tennis enthusiast, Elaine is enjoying life in the sunny Sonoran Desert while serving clients across North America.

Solutions Marketing & Consulting: solutionsmc.net

Speaking: elainefogel.com

Elaine's Blog: http://elainefogel.net

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  • by Lyss Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Puritanical roots of this country

  • by Erika Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    That was hysterical. Like Lyss, I think being up-tight about sexual innuendo is a vestige of our Puritanical roots, perhaps. We ignore sexuality, refuse to address sexuality as a real and valid human experience/emotion, don't explain it/educate about it and then when the big pink elephant standing in the living room reveals that 13 year olds are having sex, act surprised.

  • by Brick Marketing Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Go figure - one of the most sexual countries is less apt to be open about it within advertising... ironic!

  • by jeremy Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    maybe there's something deeper, like we recognize that we shouldn't be in the business of objectifying women simply to sell a phone. http://www.jer979.com/igniting-the-revolution/will-sex-always-sell/

  • by Jane Chin Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Remember the "garage band" Viagra commercial? I can see how a woman will be thrilled that her sex life with her man is the topic of her man's band, even if they're singing their praises on the sexual encounter. What about most of the Carl's Jr commercials featuring women? Skimpily clad woman gyrating on top of a mechanical horse while eating a hamburger... and on the other hand commercials featuring guys have smarter humor ("without us, some guys would starve"). Why are we so "uptight" when it comes to sex and advertising? Because advertisers haven't figured out how to portray sex in tasteful, non-objectifying, non-denigrating ways and because most of the time there are no innuendos - just poorly executed teenager-type sexual jokes masked as advertising.

  • by Search Marketing Center Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Sexuality is frowned upon because Americans allow themselves to be glued in front of televisions, and decide that its too much for the same children who goto school and probably are shown it there and everywhere else. From a marketing standpoint its great because it draws the person in and engages them for that 11 seconds of attention span, so by making it sexual and humourous the customer/random person watching will leave with that embedded in thier minds, its a shame that this tactic isn't readily availbe for our use.

  • by Elaine Fogel Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Lyss and Erika, I understand the Puritanical roots explanation. But in all fairness, how many Americans today can claim a kinship to the Sons and Daughters of Liberty? So many families are descendents of immigrants from elsewhere, who, in turn, bring their own standards of morality. I agree with you, "Brick." It's an oxymoron. Jeremy, if people thought it was disdainful to objectify women, how do we come to have all the sexist spots for beer, after shave, and a host of male-dominated products and services? I think Jane is right. You've got a point, "Search." This spot is funny not just because there's nudity, but because it's clever and entertaining. Couldn't you just see this as a sketch on SNL (if it were allowed)?

  • by Jim Kukral Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Yep, welcome to America. Where it's perfectly fine to show a dead bloody body on a CSI promo in prime time in between a family talent show while my kids are watching... Yet it's not fine to show a boob, even for one second. We're weird.

  • by Elaine Fogel Tue Jun 17, 2008 via blog

    Jim, I love it here, but I must say, you are correct. :)

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Wed Jun 18, 2008 via blog

    I agree with Jim that it is very difficult to understand why violence and gore seems to be more acceptable than sex? It seems like our society has a split personality on the issue of sex. On one hand sex is everywhere in our popular culture and often misogynistic. On the other hand, if some sort of respectful portrayal of sexuality/sensuality were to cross some arbitrary line, a foul would be called immediately. This seems dysfunctional...

  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Jun 18, 2008 via blog

    Neil, I agree with you, although I question whether advertising's portrayal of women is misogynistic as much as it is "good old boy" sexism. I would hate to think that the marketing decision makers are closet women-haters. In my opinion, it seems more like a 1960's Playboy mentality.

  • by Stephen Denny Wed Jun 18, 2008 via blog

    Puritanical roots are a big part of the reaction -- we may not make claim to them directly, but we still come from the same psychological make-up. Political correctness makes up the other 90%. We're deathly afraid to potentially offend anyone at this point, regardless of obvious humor. Go Daddy is a good example of this -- go read Bob Parson's blog. What do I think of this ad? Heavy handed. Am I buying a video phone so grand dad can watch my wife undress? No, not high on my list. So I can see people's faces, understand expression and nuance, break through the 'road rage' of semi-anonymous communication? Yes. Of course, you'd need a good marketer, a clear creative brief, an ad agency that does more than just the lightest possible lifting, and a real need for the product. Am I asking too much?

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Wed Jun 18, 2008 via blog

    Elaine, When I said popular culture I was not specifically singling out advertising. For example, some music videos, movies, and the like go beyond good old boy sexism into misogyny. But my main point is that we tolerate misogyny and portrayals of violence in our popular culture but if someone were to cross some arbitrary line (say showing breasts or something), a foul is called immediately. So you could have a respectful display of sensuality that crossed some arbitrary line that would be deemed worse (and not tolerated), while a misogynistic display that stayed in bounds would be just fine. To me that is the key point. Frankly, I do not understand why our society came up with these particular distorted standards. If the idea was to protect children from being exposed to bad things, then the project failed.

  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Jun 18, 2008 via blog

    Stephen, maybe the point of the humor in this spot is to create a memorable story associated with the brand. Sometimes, quality, funny commercials are still memorable after decades. Remember "Where's the beef?" Thanks for clarifying, Neil. If you include music, videos and movies, then I agree wholeheartedly. There's some pretty hateful stuff out there. Maybe violence is tolerated more than sex because of America's origins - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and so many others that followed during its history.

  • by Will Fri Jun 20, 2008 via blog

    And the Puritans became the way they were because they took God and his Word seriously (though admittedly they were a bit "stiff"). Ironically, remember what country/continent the Puritans came from (the one featured in the ad of note). England and America both have the same "roots." England has shamelessly dismissed God as either non-existent or a distant icon of tradition. Sadly, (yet more slowly) our country and its practices (advertising, etc) are headed that way as well.

  • by Elaine Fogel Fri Jun 20, 2008 via blog

    Thanks for writing, Will. Do you think the reason for this difference between the U.K. and the U.S. now is that the U.K. practices the separation of church and state more "religiously?" (Forgive the pun.)

  • by John Whiteside Fri Jun 20, 2008 via blog

    Putting too much stock in the "America's Puritan heritage" idea; the Puritans were early settlers here, but there were many others, too, and early in the history of the US there was lots of conflict between the Puritan-inspired states in New England and the more progressive thinking centered around Jefferson in Virginia. (The progressives won, and the result is the US Constitution.) But we are an extremely weird country when it comes to sex. As others have noted, we're comfortable with images of bloody violence and terrified of breasts. I have no explanation for it, but it's weird.

  • by Barbara Phillips Long Fri Jun 20, 2008 via blog

    Americans are also weird about violence. People will tolerate violence in drama on TV, but many are offended by crash photos in the newspaper with bloody victims and other photos of real (as opposed to pretend) violence. If the Vietnam war was taking place now, the 1972 photo by Nick Ut of the young girl fleeing a napalm strike might never have been published. On the other hand, when I worked at a paper that put a dead body on the cover (for serious reasons, not salacious reasons), the issue sold out. Then people wrote and called the newspaper to tell the staff members how awful and inappropriate the photo was. I don't remember a lot of talk when I was a teen and in college about keeping photos from Vietnam out of Life magazine or off A1 in the newspaper. I think the mixed emotions people in the U.S. have about sex and violence have become more extreme since the 1970s. Maybe the views are new and not rooted in U.S. history, but we'll have to wait at least a couple of decades to know.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Sat Jun 21, 2008 via blog

    Will, I will grant the Puritans had a certain consistency. It it at least coherent even if greatly overdone. The Word of God calls for one to love one's neighbor as oneself? Some of the things the Puritans did were not derived from love. Nevertheless, I can still comprehend the Puritans. I cannot comprehend the state of our culture. God obviously does *not* disapprove of the human body but *certainly* disapproves of misogyny. Yet our society tolerates misogyny and clear disrespect and even flat-out hostility to the human being, yet views a respectful portrayal of the human body as out of bounds. So is that picking and choosing here and there from Puritanical underpinnings or is it the culture just broken? I think broken.

  • by Elaine Fogel Sat Jun 21, 2008 via blog

    John, I like your quote "comfortable with images of bloody violence and terrified of breasts." That's a keeper. Barbara, maybe what you describe is part of human nature. We don't like to gawk at car accident scenes on the highway, but somehow, we just can't help ourselves. Just as an FYI, the young girl in Nick Ut's photo is the subject of a book entitled, The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. She defected with her husband to Canada in 1992, where they now live with their two sons. Neil, who knows? Maybe the change that's about to happen in America politically will affect our entire culture.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    Elaine, that is an interesting thought. It could affect our culture, yes. I frankly do not have the wisdom to know what it will take but I do know we can do better as a culture. It is time for all Americans to do some very hard thinking about what is good in our culture and what is toxic? What is important in life and what is not? What is the way forward internationally and domestically? I think we are at a pivot point in history. I feel it to the core.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    I found this article and it seems to capture some of the despair and malaise that Americans feel right now. The article does note that we have gone through periods like this before and change for the better is possible. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080621/ap_on_re_us/out_of_control I know that things will change for the better. We will come through this stronger. Things like natural disasters are inevitable but for everything each of us has just a bit of influence. Frankly, I think it would help if people would simply be kind to those they come in contact with and add more than they take to the world. Smile at the grocery store clerk, make a quick joke when buying coffee, never cut someone off in traffic, slow down a bit, etc., etc. Conserve a bit on consumption of natural resources. Do not condone the toxic parts of our culture by watching, listening, playing the video game, and so on. It seems strange but if enough people made relatively small decisions every day one way instead of the other way, it could make a very large change...

  • by John Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    Neil - I don't disagree. But in a nation where a significant number of people won't even interrupt their cell phone conversation to interact with the person serving them coffee, I'm not holding my breath...

  • by Harry Joiner Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    My thoughts: 1.) I question how creative the ad is. I'm of the Jerry Seinfeld school of thought here. Cleaner is funnier and is more likely to have a longer shelf life. 2.) I'm not sure how effective the ad is. I was so distracted by the eye candy that I immediately forgot who sponsored the ad. 3.) Gratuitous sex in advertising is a slippery slope. If this is on the edge of tasteful, then another agency will try to go one further until many sexy ads are simply obscene. This is what Michael Porter calls "competitive convergence" -- what Warren Buffet describes as one person at a crowded parade standing on tip-toe, quickly followed by everyone else standing on tip-toe. Eventually, all of the spectators are worse off than they were before. We have all experienced this at college football games. 4.) There's no reason my kids should see this. Forget about religion. It's just a matter of responsibility and foresightedness on the part of all adults who care about the next generation. It take a village, etc. This woman's body type reinforces to a younger generation of girls what their bodies should look like, and it makes dirty old men look quaint. Neither of these stereotypes is productive. Again, this has nothing to do with my religion. It has everything to do with the fact that I have three young daughters and two young sons, and I have to monitor their media diet as closely as their food diets. Garbage in, garbage out. Perhaps the ad is effective in the younger (male?) demographic for which it is targeted. But in my view, blatant "T&A" in ads still carries with it the "collateral damage" factor of item 4 above. Kind regards, Harry

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    Harry, you have it pretty close to exactly correct.

  • by John Sun Jun 22, 2008 via blog

    Funny: I read a bunch of the comments before watching the video, and was expecting some kind of soft-core porn. Instead I saw a woman changing her clothes. It reminded me of a US soft drink ad a few years back in which female office workers ogled sweaty men working on a city street. We all bring cultural perspectives to this. There are LOTS of cultures in which breasts are not some forbidden sight. Similarly, reading the older man's reaction as "dirty" is dependent on a whole lot of cultural assumptions, which viewers might not share. Many people would think it's perfectly normal for a mature man to be distracted by a younger woman's figure. My point is just that whether this is dirty & exploitive or just funny has as much to do with what the viewer brings to it as what is in the video. Whatever one thinks of its tastefulness, however, it seems to me that it does convey a product message very clearly: video calls provide a richer experience than audio-only calls, which seemed to be the point. Whether it does so appropriately depends on who is watching it.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Mon Jun 23, 2008 via blog

    Point taken, John, the video itself is *not* shocking in the least. That is what makes the conversation it sparked all the more interesting...

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Jun 23, 2008 via blog

    Neil, John and Harry, thanks for your contributions to the conversation. I loved it. You all make valid points. I, as a feminist, abhore distasteful, gratuitous sex for purposes of marketing products to men. I am also opposed to the use of overly skinny fashion models to sell products. It has created havoc among our young girls and teens. However, when it comes to humor, all bets are off. If a spot makes me laugh out loud, I remember it. I don't dissect it; I enjoy it.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Mon Jun 23, 2008 via blog

    Explain that one? What is up with the overly skinny models? I have never quite understood it unless it is purely practical: using models as hangers for clothing, which is off putting in and of itself. Do women like their clothes modeled by overly skinny models? Do men really like that look? Some do, I suppose. Speaking for myself, I do not find overly skinny women particularly attractive. In fact, taken to the extreme, it is the opposite.

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Jun 23, 2008 via blog

    Neil, for some reason, the ideal woman has changed from a bit "zaftig" in Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield's day, to Twiggy in the 60's, to anorexic-looking women in the 80's and 90's, and now to a more athletic look. I doubt we'll ever return to the Rubenesque ideal, but young girls and teens today are at least learning about the unrealistic image, thanks, in part, to celebs like Jamie Lee Curtis and media studies in school.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Mon Jun 23, 2008 via blog

    But aren't fashion models super thin or am I behind the times?

  • by Sally reno Sat Jun 28, 2008 via blog

    Yes it is sexist. Are you masochistic or just numb? It's not "sexual" it's voyeuristic. Since you clearly don't know what Sexist is, maybe you should double check if you know what sexual is. Gee whiz.

  • by Austin Mon Aug 4, 2008 via blog

    This is nothing short of porn. Why are we so uptight? Well I know for me its because I am a Christian and porn is wrong. Women do not need to dress or do things like that as its a sin.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Tue Aug 5, 2008 via blog

    Austin, I agree porn is wrong. Period. I would call the advertisement tacky but not porn. In 1964, supreme court justice Potter Stewart said, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced but I know it when I see it" This ad does not meet the "I know it when I see it" test...

  • by mike Sat Jan 2, 2010 via blog

    what you talking about? we americans arent uptight when it comes to sex. we're more than open about it.....its just the older generation in their late 40's and up. you must live in an isolated america then...you see girl's gone wild lately? does that seem uptight to you how many thousands of girls been on that show? also, most eastern european countries like russia, ukraine, and montenegro are more conservative than the u.s. i have met hundreds of europeans who much more conservative than us americans

  • by mike Sun Jan 3, 2010 via blog

    if we're so uptight about sex...than why is america the largest producer and consumer of porn? why does america have one the lowest ages that young women lose their virginity? you obviously live in an isolated amish community or something. sure our television is sighty more censored but thats because its trying to appeal to people from all aspects of life like muslims for example. muslims are very conservative and have millions living here.

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