No Shame in the Game: Sex Sells at the Super Bowl

December 1, 2006

It's no secret that sex sells. But even before Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Nipplegate brought the house down, Victoria's Secret went beyond sexy to borderline on indecent exposure in its 1999 Super Bowl debut.

The commercial was an outgrowth of Victoria's Secret website and intended to make women smile, men take notice and everyone to log on for an online fashion show. Nancy Kramer, founder of Resource Marketing, reasoned that while nine out of ten Victoria's Secret shoppers are women, strutting its stuff on the game eleven days before Valentine's Day would draw men in and dramatically expand its audience. It worked: The audience for the fashion show three days later rivaled the one that watched the release of President Clinton's videotaped appearance before the grand jury. Men subsequently accounted for 35 percent of Victoria's Secret online sales.

"The two Super Bowl teams won't be there, but you won't care," the ad teased," before showing lace-trimmed jiggle from its 1998 fashion show. Ed Razek, president of creative services for the parent, Intimate Brands, dismissed complaints about titillation for titillation's sake, snapping that he wasn't using lingerie to sell trucks, tortillas or tonic. "If anybody has a right to use lingerie to sell lingerie, it's us. It would be criminal if we didn't."

Westin Hotels also teased at naughtiness in its first global campaign, played out in the big game. "Other hotel marketers show beaches, lobby shots and bellman dancing," noted Marc Pujalet, then Westin's senior VP- marketing. "We're showing the customer and the reason why he stays with us. It's a nontraditional approach that's more like a beverage or fragrance ad in focusing on the experience that reflects the consumer's self image."

In one spot, a woman's sultrily notes that an attractive guy "broke his neck to get the job, then broke the corporate sales record. Who's he sleeping with?" she asks before cautioning "choose your travel partner wisely.

In the 1994 game, Norwegian Cruise Line tried to sell the emotional experience of cruising, rather than more rational considerations. NCL's new president, Adam Aron, initially instructed his agency to get steamy as "all people want to do on a cruise is have sex." Goody, Silverstein packaged that insight more acceptably, suggesting cruising was really about freedom and escape..."feeling lighter as if the rules of gravity no longer applied." That led to the tagline, "It's different out here," and a key copy point, that "the laws of the land do not apply."

In one spot, a woman stands in the ocean sensuously eating fruit as words scroll by: "There is no law that says you can't make love at four in the afternoon on a Tuesday...that says you must pack worry along with your luggage...that says you must contribute to the GNP every day of your life. The laws of the land do not apply. It's different out here." Another sultry spot asks, "What do you need to fall in love again?" On the screen, a couple shares an outdoor shower. "Westerly winds, mahi-mahi with wild rice, blue, blue water...a really nice ship," the narrator suggests.

Aron got more than he'd asked for. Focus groups also found the spots scalding. NBC ordered scenes toned down. Sexuality was honed to sensuality and cruise bookings soared. (It didn't hurt that a miserable winter plagued the Eastern part of the U.S.) But NCL soon killed the ad because it promised more than their cruises could deliver.

Super Plays/Take-Away
The way to a man's heart may be via his stomach, but the way to his wallet, marketers have long known, is through his libido. Jiggle, T&A, call it what you will, advertisers have long dangled it in front of men. The bared breast in the half-time show of the 2004 Super Bowl -and the resulting brouhaha muddied those waters. Not only did the costume "malfunction" upstage the ads and drain the water from the cooler, it put any advertiser aiming to show some skin-or hint at it-under the microscope. While sex has certainly sold in the past on the Super Bowl, using it now is riskier than ever.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.