Remember those Lynx adverts where hordes of thirsty females were activated with a quick spray of a manly scent?

They’re gone.

So is the long-running soft porn of Abercrombie & Fitch – and the controversial tactics of American Apparel.

After decades of sexual revolutions and social liberations, you’d expect us all to be a little more relaxed when it comes to fifty-foot billboards of lingerie and cleavage.

But here’s the truth:

We can all see straight through it.

Thanks to the hard work of thousands of advertisers (and the infinite dark corners of the internet), we’ve seen just about every naked crevice and bare lump there is.

We’re desensitised to titillation. And when our primal circuit boards aren’t overwhelmed by the naughtiness of a sexually charged ad, it becomes too easy to see what those advertisers are up to.

So what do smart marketers do when their tactics start to fail?

They switch to a new circuit board.

The subconscious has hidden powers

We like to think we’re in control of our own destiny.

We like to think we’re the pilots of our own personal meat-sacks.

But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of our senses. And sometimes, an indirect suggestion is the one that has the strongest effect.

When you try to sell directly – whether that’s through sex or otherwise – you’re engaging the conscious mind. You’re using the literal meaning of the words you choose (or the images you show) to grab attention and get a clear message across:

And if you remember, ads like this don’t go down too well any more.

But when you sell though indirect means – either through metaphor, implication, or innuendo – you’re putting the subconscious to work. And the subconscious mind does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to making decisions and forming opinions.

The ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad is selling through sex. And it’s managed to stick in my mind. But that’s more to do with the outrage and controversy surrounding it – not because of anything inherent in the ad itself. If it hadn’t caused a storm, I don’t think we’d still be talking about it today.

But there’s another sex-based advert that’s managed to stick in my mind – without a single shred of commentary or press coverage:

I saw this advert once, and I haven’t forgotten it.

When I think of mattresses, I think of this advert.

Just like the ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad, it’s selling through sex. But there’s not an inch of cleavage or thigh to be found.

This mattress advert doesn’t need to get itself in trouble to tap into our primal circuit boards. The viewer needs to figure out the obscene connotations for themselves. And this tiny process of connecting different ideas is what cements the experience in our memory, more firmly than any provocative wording or direct sexual imagery.

So if we can see straight through a cheap lingerie ad, why are we so much more forgiving of an ad that uses innuendo?

Innuendo respects the audience

There’s a knowing collusion when you sell with implication.

The advertisers are giving you a wink, and you’re probably winking right back. They know what they’re really saying. You know it too, and they know that you know it.

It’s not particularly big or clever. But it does show a level of maturity and self-awareness that’s lacking in a more direct sexy approach.

And when you get it right:

  • Kids are oblivious.
  • Innocent-minded adults are oblivious.
  • And the ASA doesn’t need to ban it.

All of which goes a long way to minimising the outrage – while still capitalising on the tantalising effect of a sexy sell.

So how can you use it?

In practice, it’s a dangerous game.

And I wouldn’t recommend any kind of sexy selling unless:

  • You’re in a sex-related industry (like selling condoms)
  • You know your target audience inside and out (pun intended)
  • You can limit who sees it (like highly targeted online adverts)
  • Or you’re willing to take risks with your reputation.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t take the psychology of innuendo and apply it in non-sexy ways.

Innuendo is about making your audience forge their own connections: using the literal message as a trojan (XL) horse for the message you really want them to see.

It’s about putting the message in their heads – not on the page.

And if you can bring that same theory to your everyday non-sexual marketing, you won’t need to thrust your message down anyone’s throat.


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