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Sex-Themed Ads Often Don’t Travel Well

The advertising world has long known that sex sells, but does sex translate?

While globalization is making the world smaller and bringing companies into new foreign markets all the time, the customs, perceptions and subtleties surrounding sex in different countries can make it a minefield for advertisers who merely want to be playful or use sex to grab some attention.

What might be funny to Americans can easily be raunchy elsewhere; what is easily amusing in Asia can be offensive in Europe.

Take a recent ad for breast-cancer awareness which depicts an attractive woman in a sundress drawing stares from men on the sidewalk. “If only women paid as much attention to their breasts as men do,” goes the voice-over.

The ad, produced in Singapore by Leo Burnett Worldwide, now a part of holding company B COM3 Group, was a big hit in Japan, where people felt it was a humorous way to draw attention to an important health issue. But the public-service ad flopped in France, despite perceptions in the wider world that to the French, sex is a topic open to discussion in almost any circumstances. In fact, the use of humor to talk about a serious disease offended French sensibilities.

“It was a confusing collision of two conflicting mind-sets,” said Gerard Stamp, London-based European creative director for Leo Burnett. “Breasts as sex objects are healthy, enjoyable and life-affirming; breast suffering from a life-threatening disease are anything but. To our French viewers, this was an inappropriate way to talk about a serious health issue.”

All despite the fact that in France, “breasts can be used in almost any ad provided there is some justifiable reason, no matter how tenuous,” he added, laughing.

Mr. Stamp and some of his colleagues recently ran an experiment across a dozen Leo Burnett offices around the world to help figure out how different sexual innuendoes were received across borders. The executive figured that such a study would give them a better footing for doing business globally, perhaps preventing unfortunate faux pas along the way. Leo Burnett headquarters in Chicago gave the go-ahead, and funding came from several offices around the world.

“We put together a reel of ads that use sex to various degrees, trying to reflect as many different cultures as we could,” Mr. Stamp said of the yearlong endeavor. “We then sent them to a dozen different Leo Burnett offices around the world, and asked them how people in their culture would react to the ads.”

An ad for McDonald’s U.K., written by Mr. Stamp, shows a young daughter asking her father questions about the birds and the bees. The man, anxious to change the topic, suggests they go to McDonald’s. This distracts the young girl, but only long enough to list the items they plan to order. “And then you can tell me about it,” she says to the crestfallen father.

The commercial was promptly panned by American viewers, who felt strongly that the “correct way to explain the facts of life to a child was clearly and without embarrassment,” recalls Mr. Stamp.

Some of the commercials used in the study were merely screened in regional offices. Others, like an ad for a Chilean brand of chocolates, produced by Leo Burnett Santiago, that shows a guard dog mounting the leg of an intruder after being fed one of the chocolates, were actually put on TV briefly and then pulled.

Others resulted in the advertising agency being fired from an account, such as a comedic ad, produced by Leo Burnett Warsaw, for EB Beer, a Polish brew. The commercial shows military generals posing formally for a photo shoot. Once the doors close, the generals start to celebrate with EB Beer. Because it is illegal in Poland to show anyone drinking alcohol in ads, the staid military are never shown consuming the beer. Instead, they pour it on each other, dress up in crazy costumes and undress each other. “Indeed, despite its success and popularity, it caused such a storm that the client ended up firing the agency,” said Mr. Stamp.

Religious differences frequently come into play. An ad for Levi’s jeans, produced by London-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty, in which Leo Burnett has a minority stake, shows a young man buying condoms from a pharmacist and hiding them in the small pocket of his jeans. When he goes to pick up his date, he discovers that her father is the pharmacist he met that afternoon. “Coin pockets, created in 1935, abused ever since,” says the voice-over.

While the commercial was a hit in the United Kingdom, “in a strongly Catholic country, like Italy or Spain, not only is an ad that refers to contraception seriously ‘off message,’ but jokes about premarital sex raise difficult cultural questions,” says Mr. Stamp.

Not too surprisingly, Scandinavian countries tend to produce ads that have very few taboos. One Hyundai car commercial, created by Leo Burnett Stockholm, in a humorous way alluded to not only to marital infidelity with both the husband and the wife, but implied a homosexual affair as well. While the commercial won an award at last year’s Cannes advertising festival, it might not go over well in, say, Spain.

“Like clients,” quips Mr. Stamp, “countries probably get the advertising they deserve.”


Sarah Ellison, The Wall Street Journal—March 31, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.