Does sex really sell? Explicit print, TV ads arouse debate Commercials are risque business as standards loosen


New York -- The television commercial's soundtrack is saying something about a miniskirt and black tights made by Anne Klein. But who's listening? On the screen, a woman, back to the camera and apparently astride another figure, is taking off her bra and beginning to move.

The "bra spot" recently ran on CBS in New York, Los Angeles and a few other cities. The other two major networks accepted a similar, slightly less explicit spot that also showed, as the networks say, "simulated intercourse."

What's going on? Call it the new morality sweeping Madison Avenue. Advertising involving sex is more permissible than ever before -- on the air, on billboards and in print.

Meanwhile, though, ads touching on the environment or nutrition are coming under ever-tighter constraints. If Americans have become less sensitive about sexy ads, they're increasingly irate about claims involving food and Mother Earth.

Attorney generals in Maryland and other states are battling companies over such issues as the fat content of milk, the number of calories in "light" cheesecake, and the sodium content of soups. Congress has mandated that public service spots on nutrition be shown on children's television shows, notable for their gluttonous consumption of sugared cereal ads, beginning in January. And in Baltimore and New York, some neighborhood leaders are fighting to eliminate billboards touting alcohol and tobacco.

"While we will tolerate an expansion in areas that may offend our prurient interests, we are not prepared to do that with products ++ that affect our quality of life," said Stuart Lee Friedel, an attorney with the New York-based law firm of Davis & Gilbert. Mr. Friedel, who specializes in advertising, includes Noxell Corp. among his clients.

One example: A magazine ad for Procter & Gamble disposable diapers that shows a hand holding earth. That, the copy suggests, is how the diapers appear 90 days after being tossed in the trash.

"It is nonsense, and it is under investigation," Mark Corwin, assistant New York state attorney general, told ad industry lawyers at a conference here last week. Only two weeks ago, the New York City Consumer Affairs Department reached an out-of-court settlement with Procter & Gamble, prohibiting it from running the ad in any publication sold in New York.

Clearly, advertising standards are changing.

Once even routine ads for some practical, everyday items were shunned. "Hygiene products, deodorants, laxatives . . . and similar products are generally not accepted," the NBC code of 1943 noted. "Products which are not primarily designed to perform these indicated functions are acceptable only when advertising avoids mentioning such functions."

Not long ago, an Anne Klein spot showing a man kissing a woman, and beginning to unbutton her shirt, was held off the air by leery network censors, recalled Nancy Lueck, company vice president.

Drawing a line

"Over the last few years, commercial content, like programming, has gone through a significant maturing process. Sex is a driving force. 1990s' reality is not to be denied," said Rick Gitter, NBC vice president for advertising standards.

Today, women can model lingerie or even breast-feed a child (in a Gerber ad) on television. Indeed, the networks have developed an entire category for advertisements commonly known as "genital products."

Magazines have similarly loosened up. Consider a much-noted 116-page Calvin Klein insert in New York and Los Angeles editions of Vanity Fair, described by Advertising Age as "boy meets girl, boy meets boy, boy meets self." That's merely the most striking example of a vast range of jeans, lingerie and cosmetics ads that once would have been relegated to Playboy or Penthouse but now are appearing in upscale mainstream publications.

Does it go too far?

"There's a fine line between doing something new, different and arresting, and angering your customer," said Anne Klein's Ms. Lueck. But her company's ad, probably the most striking of all carried in the mainstream medium, has inspired only a few negative letters and a tremendous amount of attention. "We wanted the women to say, 'Hey,' and we've gotten a fantastic response."

The line between offensive and effective advertising has never been clear.

On a practical level, offensive commercials spoil their commercial intent. But notions of what is offensive change constantly. Legally, the climate has been no more consistent. Advertisements have never been granted the unqualified rights of free speech held by books, articles or news programs.

Advertising standards have always been defined by the public's tolerance and the shifting moods of courts and government agencies. Courts began giving limited protection to ads in the 1960s, when a paid opinion piece in the New York Times was considered free speech.

But the scope of this freedom remains limited. Five years ago, for example, Puerto Rico forbade casino advertising, even though casinos are legal in Puerto Rico. More recently, the state of New York limited announcements for Tupperware parties at a state university dorm.

"The field is inherently confused," said Robert O'Neil, a University of Virginia professor and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va.

On environmental and nutritional issues, exaggerations or misleading statements have triggered one legal action after another against some of the nation's largest companies.

Procter & Gamble, a company that prides itself on adept marketing, was not only forced to change its advertising for disposable diapers (and to pay the $5,000 cost for the New York City investigation) because it under-played the havoc they played on the environment, it also had to change ads for Citrus Hill orange juice because it wrongly suggested that the juice was fresh. And it remains in negotiations with New York authorities on yet another issue: potentially misleading the public about the environmental impact of its antiperspirants.

P&G; isn't alone. Kraft General Foods Inc. has been forced to retract claims concerning the calories in its light cheesecake and the calcium in its cheese slices. Campbell's was criticized for publicizing the benefits of some soups but not the high sodium content. And the Maryland Office of Consumer Protection recently pursued claims against a milk distributor about what constitutes low fat.

Even proper disclosure and adherence to current law is no shield. A half-dozen states have considered outlawing certain types of tobacco and alcohol advertisements, Mr. O'Neil said. Angry protesters in Baltimore, Harlem and elsewhere aren't waiting. They have defaced or otherwise challenged billboards touting these products.

Federal response

The federal government has recently shown a willingness to respond to the public clamor. Stung by the surge in lawsuits over environmental claims, the ad industry itself has asked the Federal Trade Commission to revive its dormant practice of providing guidelines that would indicate what is allowed.

"We're at a point where the political demand and common sense demand them," said Barry Cutler, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the FTC.

Responding to persistent complaints about heavy advertising on children's television shows, Congress last year passed a law limiting the minutes to 10 1/2 per hour on weekends and 12 per hour on weekdays, beginning in January. Additionally, as part of a separate federal ruling concerning the license renewal process, stations will have to show how they are enhancing the educational needs of children. The move, network executives say, will result in more public service ads going on the air next year. Likely to be emphasized is nutrition, an area of particular controversy because of the many ads for sugared cereal.

Networks, because they operate under a public license, have traditionally had the most conservative ad standards. ABC, CBS and NBC all keep large staffs to prescreen any submission. But the standards have been loosened recently -- and still tend to trail what is permitted on programs.

"A lot has been driven by programming. If you look at prime time and soaps, advertisers say, 'Why can't you do it in the ads?' " said Sam Craig, professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

Given the current turmoil, ABC's image was tarnished recently when it sent ad agencies a proposed revision of its standards. Amid the bleak advertising climate, ABC's move toward formalizing broader standards, which is also being done with less fanfare by NBC and CBS, was criticized as an attempt to use sleaze to polish the bottom line. All three networks deny that charge -- they note that almost all the revisions were already in place at ABC and the other major networks. Still, the issue seems to touch a raw public nerve.

"If there is a silver lining to the trauma that we've gone through since these press reports came out," said Harvey Dzodin, vice president for commercial clearence at Capital Cities/ABC, "it is that we have been genuinely touched by the degree in which people are committed . . . to network standards and guidelines."

How risque are the new standards? The biggest change is to allow physicians, or people acting like physicians, to peddle pharmaceuticals on the air for the first time in three decades. The other two networks said that they relaxed this policy earlier but have met with lackluster interest on the part of sponsors.

Astrology ads and spots for casinos may be permitted, as well as before-and-after depictions of weight-loss.

There was at least one notable case of tightening. Remember when every product on the air was "new"? Well, one facet of the proposed ABC revision reflecting long-standing FTC policy, is that the word "new" can be used only for six months after a product introduction. Even in the fairy-tale world of advertising, some things get old.

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