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The Soft-Core Hard-Sell
The Unbuttoned Blouse Ploy and Other Coy Techniques
'Sex and sensualism' on Madison Avenue
by Ron Rosenbaum
MORE Magazine, July/August 1976
Her name is Bond Gideon, she's a Salem lady and her shirt is unbuttoned to her navel. At least. It's hard to tell how far down it's unbuttoned in the full-page portraits of Bond Gideon Salem will run 36 times this year. It's hard to tell because when one's gaze is lured down the "V of flesh" exposed by the unbuttoning, and reaches just that point where the shadowed outline of cleavage deepens into evocative twilight, right there where the eye of the curious might strain most intently to discover the extent of the exposure, the Salem people have interposed the bright, white letters of the word "SMOKE." It forms a teasing typeface latticework veil - concealing yet enticing, imbuing the word SMOKE with sensual mystery, transforming it from a mere verb in a copy line into an erotic imperative.
But wait: a disclaimer. Lest you think an overly fevered imagination is at work here, and I am reading too much calculation into the design of the ad, the "V of flesh" is not my phrase. It's Pat Fanelli's phrase, and Pat Fanelli is the art director who designed the whole Salem campaign. Listen as he explains the skin's function in the ad: "One way the ad works is that with her shirt open like that your eye travels down the 'V of flesh,' which is like an arrow, to the headline of the ad. Then your eyes travel down a bit and dwell in that area down there where the shadows make the body of the copy stand out, then around and up to where the cigarette is outlined against the grass." However, Fanelli defends the unbuttoning against any narrow interpretation. "It didn't start out as a sex gimmick," he told me. "If it's become that on the page, then you're missing the philosophy of the ad."
It's this philosophy, Fanelli maintains, that accounts for the unbuttoning. "The philosophy is, these are real people, they are today, they are self-confident. . . . When we did the shooting we were looking for a special relaxed and restful attitude. . . . For this lady it came across she felt that way with her top two buttons open. She likes her chest. I liked it, too. . . ."
The people in the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company liked it, too, although there was apparently some discussion down in their Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters, over whether they liked that much of it to appear in full-page ads. When I asked a company spokesman if there had been any controversy over the ad, he called me back to say, "I found an answer that was surprising to me. . . . They did notice it. We have several levels of control here that must approve anything like that and they did. We're not going to approve anything that's not in good taste." Although he insisted that "we don't see this as a trend toward permissiveness," he conceded that, "20 years ago we wouldn't have done it. We couldn't have done it."
They're not the only people doing it, of course. Since the Bond Gideon ad alerted me, I have come across two other instances of the unbuttoned blouse ploy. The Tequila Sauza woman coyly employs a Sauza bottle nestled between her breasts to conceal the extent of her unbuttoning. "Who knows where it will lead?" reads the disingenuous copy line that accompanies the image.
The Imperial Whiskey lady is posed in a way that reveals less, but implies even more, than the Salem and Sauza ads. Although her portrait is cropped above her cleavage, the way her shirt hangs open at the top suggests that none of her buttons are buttoned, and the impish look in her eye seems to confirm the surmise.
Then there is implicit nudity ploy. The Benson and Hedges woman wraps herself in a pink towel while she reaches to remove her bikini top and bottom from her clothes line.
One Seagram's Seven ad features a totally nude man drinking and frolicking with a casually dressed woman. Of course he's curled up bathing in a quaint tub; the ad isn't interesting for the amount of skin it shows but for the implied intimate relationship between the couple - something frowned upon in liquor advertising.
Who indeed knows where it will all lead? Toward more sophistication, for one thing. The unbuttoned blouse ploy is only one of the cruder examples of a style that might be called the soft-core hard sell. (Paul Krassner used to reproduce unintentionally suggestive ads in The Realist under the heading "Soft-Core Pornography of the Month." The soft-core hard sell is both more subtle and more open about its intentions.) Of course, there is sexuality in TV advertising - more of it all the time - but the vanguard of the genre is found in liquor and tobacco ads, geared as they are to the consenting adults who buy magazines. Liquor ads in particular have had to come a long way fast, bound as they were for so long by puritanical industry codes.
Until 1958, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) Code of Good Practice prohibited even the appearance of any women in any hard liquor ad. After 1958, women were permitted to appear but not allowed to hold a drink in their hands. By the mid-60s, they could hold a drink - but only if they were fully dressed.
The current DISCUS Code of Good Practice still demands that, "No advertisement shall depict a woman in provocative dress or situation." But obviously certain parties have been flouting this rule because an addendum to the DISCUS Code, adopted September 9, 1975, includes a long, detailed "Interpretation" of this rule. According to the addendum, "Recent isolated advertisements do not appear to be upholding standards followed by the industry in the past regarding sex, sensualism, and suggestiveness. . . . The Council has always felt that advertisements should not include copy or illustrations which are sexually titillating or which imply a link between drinking and sexual success or . . . suggest sexual involvement between those portrayed."
Which then are the juicy ads that brought on this reproof? I have a few in mind. If I'm right you won't be seeing them again. The most subtly and skillfully suggestive ads I've seen in print, they were part of a series of Smirnoff Vodka ads that appeared in the summer of 1975, before the DISCUS warning. They were short lived summer variations on a long running Smirnoff campaign featuring young couples enjoying vodka drinks together.
The sophistication of these ads lies not just in the amount of skin they show - many drink ads show more now - but in the interaction between the man and the woman drinking. They are not merely holding glasses, they are getting high together. They look as if they're well into their second "White Elephant" or whatever, we see them breaking up into tipsy laughter or smiling at some shared intimacy.
Most daring of all is the touching Smirnoff couples engage in: a hand squeezes a thigh in one ad, arms and thighs entwine. It's clear the couples are lovers, there's a sense we are witness to a moment of growing intoxication that is sexual as well as alcoholic. In the hot and hazy summer setting there's a sense of erotic tension as if with every sip and giggle the Smirnoff couple is more likely to abandon their drinks and abandon themselves to temptation.
Was Smirnoff, which still boasts that "It leaves you breathless," trying to leave you breathing heavily? Powerful stuff. No wonder the DISCUS Code is concerned about the suggestion of "sexual involvement between those portrayed."
Since the September 9, 1975 warning against "sex, sensualism and suggestiveness," the Smirnoff ads have become noticeably more demure. Seldom are there couples any more. Instead we have trios of what appear to be hearty, good friends playing croquet; bathing suits have been replaced by long summery dresses. People aren't touching each other any more. A spokesman for the Smirnoff brand told me that the campaign was merely designed to show "everyday things." He told me Smirnoff had pioneered the use of women in liquor ads with their campaign featuring Julie London and Julie Newmar back in the early 60s, but that the current series of ads "is not meant to be seductive. . . . Now you look at Wolfschmidt's," he added, "that's one I call seductive - that's a couple scene far beyond anything we've done." There seems to be quite a bit of finger pointing in the liquor industry these days. The man at Heublein I spoke to say, "Don't look at us, take a look at that Cherry Kijafa ad." (The Kijafa ad - "Put a little cherry in your life" - and one Woldschmidt ad - much cleavage and some frontal bathing-suited body contact - lack the seductive subtleties of the short lived Smirnoff School.)
Tobacco companies tend not to push the seductive aura of their product - after all, how many people get carried away and into bed by a heavy session of mutual Benson and Hedges smoking? Instead, tobacco people push the sexual self-confidence associated with smoking. There is the frank openness of the MAX lady who says, "Hello long lean and delicious." There are the free spirits with open blouses and open shirts (the Salem Long campaign features several open-shirted men in much the same pose as Bond Gideon.)
But certain brands have been running into trouble with their attempts to establish a sexual identity. Take the unhappy histories of the Camel Filters' Man and The Turk. The Turk is the new spokes-symbol for Camel Filters. The Turk is the second attempt by this brand to come up with a satisfactory masculinity symbol, attempts no doubt inspired by the continuing success of the Marlboro Man.
Their first attempt, a campaign with the theme "Can You Spot the Camel Filters' Man?" was remarkable for its use of hostile sexual caricatures. The Camel Filters' Man was always pictured amidst a crowd of weird and grotesque people - a groupie-type Loose Woman, a gargoyle-like gay male wearing hot pants, an effete glandularly deficient hippie male - an assemblage calculated to make the straight, no-nonsense, sport-jacketed masculinity of the Camel Filters' Man more outstanding by contrast. Evidently not outstanding enough, because the Camel Filters' Man has been consigned to the dust heap of advertising history (was it bad taste or bad sales that killed him off?) to be replaced by The Turk. A more exotic version of masculinity than the Camel Filters' Man - he looks like a younger, taller Omar Shariff - The Turk is frequently pictured in a scene with a smaller, paler, plainer young couple. In one such ad, The Turk is standing astride his motorcycle next to a pick-up truck loaded with bushels of apples. The woman at the wheel of the truck is giving The Turk an apple and an appraising glance, while her meek, domesticated husband looks on helplessly from among the bushels in the back of the truck. In another one in the series, The Turk is in a sweat-stained Brando-type undershirt standing astride a rock next to an archaeological site. Another smaller, paler couple is present again, the woman gazing worshipfully at some icon The Turk appears to have unearthed, the man gazing enviously at The Turk himself. Perhaps the juxtapositions of The Turk and these couples are also intended to symbolize the fusion of potent and mild qualities in Camel's "Turkish and Domestic Blend" of tobaccos. But if the intent is to suggest some subtle erotic tension between The Turk and the domestic couple - well, the Camel Filters people are clumsy at it by comparison with the Smirnoff people.
The most powerful pushers of the pornography of self-confidence are the Winston and Salem series. You've seen the Winston people - so fiercely, grimly, self-confident they almost bristle off the page. Few buttons are unbuttoned. In fact, the Winston series seems to prefer its people buttoned up tightly in layers of sweaters and suede. No seductiveness here: they glare out of the page as if to say, "Don't fuck with me." They are not sex objects, but object lessons in sexual self-confidence. Many of the copy lines seem to boast of their sexual worldliness: "Winston Wasn't My First Cigarette," says one no-nonsense Jane Fonda look-alike. "I learned about smoking by trying different cigarettes. When your taste grows up Winston is for Real." Other copy lines suggest a tough-minded Masters and Johnson outlook: "I don't judge my cigarette by its length," declares a deadly serious safari-jacketed Winston male.
Still, there's something forced about the self-absorbed solemnity of the Winston people. The relaxed, but alert, Salem people radiate what seems to be a more believable self-confidence. It's not overtly sexual, but it suggests a more healthy sensuality than the discipline-minded mien of the Winston models. The Salem people are doing something very interesting. They're not trying to associate their cigarette with a sex object, a material object, or even with the outdoor nature objects that many brands use to confer the spirit of health upon the image of tobacco smoking. Instead, they're selling something immaterial but more valuable - inner well-being, spiritual health.
Pat Fanelli's office at the William Esty Agency is lined with portraits of Salem people. There's "Chuck," the silver-haired, open-shirted Californian whose portrait gets run far more frequently - 168 times this year - than Bond Gideon and all the others combined. There are also ethnic Salem people, inner city Salem people, cold weather Salem people - all in the same cross-legged affable pose. "That pose is very important," Fanelli told me. "Notice how it's all based on triangles - there's a lot of use of body language for subliminal communication there."
While a public relations man monitored our conversation, Fanelli went on enthusiastically about how he selected his Salem people. "I start with a hundred people and I'll do personal interviews with each of them. I play back the interviews to get a feel of who they are. When I narrowed it down to about 22 we went out to L.A. - these were actually shot in a park outside of Pasadena, I think it was - we took 18-20,000 shots altogether. I tell them all to show up for the shooting with some changes of clothes, but whatever makes them feel most like who they are. Then we talk. We'll talk about who they are, how they feel, what they're smoking for, how they feel about smoking . . . kind of therapy. You could say that I guess . . . . Now with Bond Gideon we talked about how she's a smart lady, a confident lady, not a model but a real person or at least a theatrical actress. . . ."
"We actually get a lot of fan letters from Salem Smokers," the agency p.r. man interposed. "Thanking us for using people instead of model types, saying they're proud these kind of people are representing Salem smokers. . . . It's kind of honest advertising. A majority of these copy lines come from the mouths of Salem smokers themselves."
"How did you select Bond and Chuck from the 20,000 shots?" I asked Fanelli.
"Well we took the best shots from about 22 models back to New York and put them on a videotape to show to the folks back here, and we were showing the reel and for a while it's silent. Suddenly someone like Bond Gideon flashes on and everybody in the room says, "Oooh, yes. That's it."
"It's like meeting somebody for a date in a pub and you fall in love," the agency p.r. man says. "Everybody falls in love. It's that honest and sincere."
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the article by Ron Rosenbaum is copyright © 1976 by MORE and Ron Rosenbaum
original web posting: Sunday, February 24, 2002
last modified: Sunday, October 31, 2004