When sex doesn't sell: Slew of bad ads backfire in the blogosphere

File this under "stupid sex ads." While it's true that sex sells -- and has for more than a century -- a rash of recent ads from top marketers has proven there are exceptions to that rule.

Take this TV commercial from Hall's Refresh, a sugar-free candy"with advanced moisture lotion." The ad carries a theme that's popping up on a number of TV shows, from ABC's Cougar Town to Fox's Glee : older woman hitting on a younger man (remember the teenage Puck's pool-cleaning service in Glee?). In the Hall's ad, a harried looking mom, helping her son move into his new dorm, is kindly offered a Hall's Refresh by his roommate. What happens next verges into "what were they thinking?" territory. The teen- and the middle-aged mom gaze at each other, mouths wetly moving from side to side as they masticate. "I wonder if she likes it," the roommate thinks in a suggestive voice-over. Sure, it's debatable whether Cougar Town's depiction of that dynamic is pathetic or empowering, but the Hall's ad plays squarely to creepy.
Just in time for the holidays comes this spot for Boost Mobile, which uses the stop-action charm of TV classics like Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer in a less than wholesome way. While some may find the commercial amusing, others may find the depiction of Mrs. Claus as a cheating spouse with a snowman fetish offensive. As one blog asks, "will you forgive Boost Mobile for ruining Frosty forever?"

With thousands of messages vying daily for consumers' eyeballs, marketers have become even more desperate to reach audiences and are willing to take more risks. Sometimes it results in top-notch, pioneering ads. Other times, it fails miserably. When such a misstep occurs these days, however, it gets broadcast across the Internet. Unamused viewers post their critiques on social media sites and link to the video on video-sharing sites. So even though a spot may have been geared toward a specific demographic -- say men between the ages of 18 and 34 -- the social media effect means it's suddenly being viewed by a much broader audience.

Indeed, a sub-category of media blogs have popped up to offer advertising critiques, ranging from Nielsen's AdFreak to the global advertising-focused AdLand. And then there's the spirited AdRants, not to be confused with the Ad Rant column that runs on DailyFinance's sister publication WalletPop.

The wrong type of shock factor

"Everyone is trying to stand out," says Peter Hempel, the president of DDB New York, an advertising agency owned by Omnicom Group (OMC), which didn't work on any of the ads mentioned in this story. "Every brand makes a decision: are they going to stand out on the merits of their brand or on shock value? We always stand out by trying to astonish. If I astonish you, you like my brand. If I shock you, it's for a moment."

Check out this print ad for an Australian brewery, which turns Snow White into a somewhat less than virginal character (the tagline is that the beverage is "anything but sweet.") A decade or more ago, that ad might never have reached audiences outside the land down under, but bloggers and beer enthusiasts ran with it.One blog, Zelda Lily, wrote "the ad is pretty offensive, especially considering they crowned their sexually promiscuous spoke woman with the title of "ho," while one beer blog said it was "damn funny." The ad apparently was pulled after Disney (DIS) objected to the unchaste depiction of one of its princesses.

PepsiCo (PEP) was aiming for a young male demographic with its edgy iPhone app for its AMP drink, which gave out hints on how to score with different types of women (by the way, "cougar" was one of the stereotypes included in the app.) Pepsi pulled the ad after negative feedback from customers. One poster on Jezebel.com wrote "To make half of the population apathetic and disinterested in your company should never be the goal of advertising," while some reviewers on iTunes gave the app one star out of five and added negative comments, such as one who called it "sexist and stupid."

And don't forget another recent pistachio ad featuring would-be son-in-law to Sarah Palin, Levi Johnston, with a tag line that tries to poke fun at his apparent failure to effectively use birth control ("Now Levi Johnston does it with protection.") The ad, predictably, led to many nut references, and Web comments ranged from asking whether consumers should boycott the pistachio company to those who found the ad amusing.

Before social media and email, Hempel says the rule of thumb was that every seven angry letters represented one thousand complaints. Now, he says, "You know exactly how many complain."

This story was update on December 4 to include the reference to Boost Mobile's new ad campaign featuring Mrs. Claus.
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