This is a question of which is more powerful - sex or violence?
By no means am I suggesting one over the other, but I’ve recently noticed a violent trend emerge in advertising that’s had me missing the superfluous underdressed models we’ve become accustomed to.
The ad I saw was for Texting and Driving. A woman’s hand fell across the page, lifeless. Only a dapple of blood ran down her fingers to reveal the engagement ring she proudly wore.
The ad had stopped me. So it worked.
I read the copy and I associated feelings of disgust and despair with texting and driving. Granted, I don’t own a car anymore, but when cellphones began to emerge as an extra limb, you bet damn sure I was right alongside everyone else - fighting the urge to text my girlfriend back before pulling into the black hole of tending bar.
We all know texting and driving is bad. Why do we need more blood?
Because violence will make you stop. Even staged violence.
Danger is real and we need to be reminded of that every day - like a teenager who wants to explore every drug-induced high available. An ad with a bit of blood, or a shocked expression, or an in-depth view of a battlefield pulls out the most basic of instincts – survival.
When viewing the Texting and Driving Ad I thought about my own survival; how important it is to avoid violence; that I should be listening to the ad if I ever want to join that engagement ring with a wedding band. Violence will make us stop and then we collide with the ad - like the inevitable collision of a deer and headlights.
We harken back to Aristotle’s theory of the cave wall shadows, only now our cave walls are billboards or subway slabs. The shadows are our models and priced goods. As consumers we survive in those few moments we have between each ad - only knowing the world they choose to present to us.
Decades ago an image like the one I described above would have consumers in a state of fight or flight. Seeing so much blood and feeling that devastation... It’s like Jesus Christ on the cross. It beckons you to find sympathy immediately. Perhaps that’s the ad’s ultimate goal – to instill a visceral reaction.
But the truth is that we’re numb to those old tricks.
Yeah, I’ll stop and look at the ad, but I’m not going to fight it, or fly away from it. The only goal left is for me to remember it. The average viewer will grace a billboard for less than a second before moving on. It’s not the initial reaction these ads are working toward - it’s the lasting effect. It’s the memory. Just look at me, I remember seeing the ad months ago and yet today it's clear as glass.
I remember the ad about Texting and Driving. I remember the violence.
But what happens when we see sex? Is pro-creation not just as basic of an instinct?
Doe it measure up to survival?
Our 21st century culture has found an immeasurable amount of ways to avoid the pro-creation problem - condoms, birth control, surgery and Saturday matinees at the movie theater are all reasons why our desire to pro-create has been dulled to accommodate only instant arousal.
We don’t care about having a child, or getting married anymore. We care about sex.
We don’t want, or expect to find, true love on our way to work. We want sex. We want it now and we don’t want to have to work to get it. Our moments of desire tally a million in a day’s work. Sexual desire, I’d imagine, is more than half that. What I’m saying, and what we all know, is not a new idea. Neither is the path to exploiting it.
Half-naked women are the American dream. Making a profit off your own objectively beautiful figure is a natural aspiration to have. Turning your face and body into an object of sale for items made to beautify what should already be considered beautiful is… American?
So what’s happening when I look at an ad for Victoria’s Secret? I’m not looking at the words, nor the product, or even the store it’s sitting above. I’m recognizing my desire for instant gratification and I’m working to extinguish it before embarrassing myself in public. I’m looking at long legs, a tight ass, pushed up breasts and a foreign facial structure; and I’m forgetting these are real people. I’m looking at what they’ve sold to me as perfection and I’m forgetting that it’s probably been photoshopped. I’m bombarded with my immediate attraction then suddenly stifled by my sense of proper etiquette in public. Suffocating my arousal with chivalrous hindsight.
It’s maddening to feel so encumbered by your own instinct.
It makes you walk faster, step harder, think further ahead - it makes you remember how embarrassing it was to be aroused on a city sidewalk.
The risqué is attractive. The risk is memorable.
It’s what keeps terrible people doing terrible things. It’s arousing to think your arousal is somehow wrong - and that is what it’s all banking on. The hidden joy behind being naughty. There is no hidden joy in violence, unless you’re Jeffery Dahmer and you needed violence to bring your new friend into a state submission. There shouldn’t be a joy in violent actions.
Violence, conservatively, does not bring about a state of joy for most people. This is why Sex wins over Violence in advertising. It is more common to have wildly suppressed sexual desires than violent ones. Our repression extrapolates our ability to remember what ignites our desires. It’s like when you try to hold your orgasm in during sex. You say to yourself, don’t do it, don’t do it, but we all know that only makes you do it faster. You know this and yet you can’t help doing it. It’s a loop that lingerie ads feed into every day.
So the winner, I think, for a more powerful marketing tool is Sex.
Obviously I’m not the first to think this way but I’m also not objectively thinking. If you happened to make it through this whole post and you disagree with any of my points or just want to argue for the sake of arguing please comment below.
These are just my ramblings of a thought process curated over years of living both on and behind the polysemous camera. Another good question would be about our obsession with violence in American entertainment - if it is inhibiting us to feel joy in its presence the more we’re surrounded by it.