Claire Beale on Advertising: Can you create a buzz around a sex toy without saying what it is?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sex toy, pleasure enhancer, erotic stimulator, Rampant Rabbit. Call it what you will, it's a vibrator, and we don't like to talk about that sort of thing.

So, when the Dutch electronics giant Philips handed its ad agency DDB a brief for the launch of a new, ehem, intimate massager, there were a few dry throats in the room. It's not often that ad agencies get the chance to tackle a sexual taboo for a mainstream audience. But if the painfully staid Philips could make the leap into creating a new product category they delicately call "relationship care", then adland would happily follow.

And so it was that DDB came face to face with a brief for a new range of upmarket sex toys, the Philips Intimate Massagers. If the thought of an Intimate Massager brings a nervous flush to your cheek, this marketing strategy's for you, because the whole campaign has been carefully conceived to remove the last shred of phnar, phnar from a market more usually dominated by rubber phalluses sold alongside crotchless knickers in the sort of shops your mother wouldn't like.

Just in case you were in any doubt, the Philips press release politely prescribes the range for "couples aged 35+ in committed relationships". And in case you were harbouring thoughts of earthquake orgasms, it specifies that it's all about health and well- being: "The physical benefits of an active sexual relationship can include reducing stress and depression, boosting cardio health, countering prostate cancer and fighting ageing."

Given all the obvious sensitivities (phnar, phnar), DDB's press campaign, due to break this week, is a lovely solution. It shows an embracing couple rendered in contour lines, sensuous and scientific all at once. In one of the executions, the contour lines are raised in relief, giving the ad a beautiful tactility. Neil Dawson, DDB's global creative director for Philips, says: "It was important for us to create an iconic visual that conveyed passion, intimacy, warmth and sensuality." Without the titillation.

You'll see the ads in mass media such as the weekend colour supplements and glossy upmarket monthlies. And you'll notice that, although they're light on copy, they make a clear point that the massagers are available on the high street, in Boots and Selfridges. It's nothing to be ashamed of, honestly.

So, could we be about to see the sex-toy market go mainstream, stripped bare of stigma, pleasure for all?

Recent history suggests there's a way to go yet. When Durex launched its Play range of sex toys back in 2004, it had a bumpy ride. News broke that Durex was talking to Boots about a distribution deal for Play, and the press coverage sparked an outcry among the retailer's staff and customers. Boots backed out. The retailer now stocks Durex's vibrating penis rings, and the entire Play range boasts annual sales of £32m, but the embarrassment factor remains, and for most sex toys, the main sales driver is now the web. So you can also buy your Philips Intimate Massager on Amazon.

And despite the lovely ads and sensitive marketing strategy, there are two big things that could hold Philips back in its bid to bring vibrators to the masses. First, the packaging. The Intimate Massager itself is a discreet pebble- shaped thing, but there's nothing discreet about the box it comes in. You can only imagine the debates that went on about the pack design, but the resulting fudge is clear. The box has been given a sensuous purple colour scheme, but in a fit of propriety, they've covered it in a typical Philips sleeve that makes the whole thing look more nasal-hair remover than love aid. And the box itself is enormous, way too big to make this a discreet purchase along with a prawn sandwich during your lunch break. You can't slip this baby into your handbag.

Then there's the price. In these straitened times, Philips' £79.99 price tag makes stimulating your "most intimate contours" seem rather a luxury. It might just be that the ads turn out to be the most pleasurable thing about the new brand.



On a related subject, but at the risk of allowing this column to descend from vibrators into something altogether unsuitable for inclusion in a family newspaper, I tentatively refer you to a new viral to celebrate 30 years of the fashion label Diesel.

It has been created by the Viral Factory, and if you've got the stomach for suggestive maraca- shaking, harmonica-playing and banana-munching, it's actually wickedly good. To check it out, type Diesel porn into YouTube. I'll say no more than that.

Now, one of the wonderful things about the advertising industry is the mutual respect its best creative practitioners enjoy with artists in other fields. So it was that, last week, the ad agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay hosted an intimate soirée with the endlessly fascinating Malcolm McLaren, whose contribution to British culture has helped to shape what so many of us are today. And that's more than you can say for most agency creatives (present company aside).

Sadly, the rapt audience didn't get a chance to quiz McLaren on his views of his erstwhile colleague John Lydon's latest brush with advertising. The former anarchist has signed up as the new face of Country Life butter, and will star in an ad campaign by Grey London this autumn. Apparently, the marketing team at Dairy Crest think the Country Life brand isn't famous enough, and are pinning their hopes on Lydon cutting through the spreadables like a hot knife.

Lydon has even gone so far as to sport yellow tweeds and plus- fours in the service of the yellow stuff. But then, who ever doubted that the fathers of punk were marketing geniuses beneath all those safety pins?

When ITV gathered its biggest commercial customers together for a glittering shindig last Thursday, the event seemed set to be an expensive wake.

After a year in which ITV has struggled to keep its ad revenues in step with the market, with revenue for September expected to be 20 per cent down on 2007, and redundancies announced in the commercial department, there didn't seem to be a lot to celebrate.

However, the lavish black-tie dinner at Camden's Roundhouse was given an 11th-hour fillip with the news that Ofcom is backing calls to lighten the broadcaster of some of its public-service load.

The broadcaster's executives (or those confident of dodging their P45 for a while yet) could barely contain their sense of relief as requirements for decent regional programmes, off-peak current affairs shows and programming produced out of London are all set to be reduced. For the first time in quite some time ITV and its customers had reason to raise their glasses.



Claire Beale is editor of 'Campaign'

Comments