Sex with Trees: Do’s & Don’ts of Using Sex to Sell Sustainability

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

Tall, lean, leaves blowing in the wind and all natural – trees are pretty sexy . . .right? What about global warming, conservation or recycling? For many, not so sexy. However, countless studies have backed up the theory that sex does sell. So it seems only natural that this phenomenon would not only get the word out, but catapult the green movement into, well, celebrity status. And thanks to mainstream successes like Diesel ‘s “Global Warming Ready” and PETA’s “I’d rather go naked” ad campaigns, the green movement has hit an all time high in public awareness and popularity. But how can sex be used, if at all, towards activating a shift in perspectives and positive action for the environment? It’s a hard and controversial question but we can start with a list of do’s and don’ts:

DON’T: Manipulate for the cause– even a good one

Advertisers have been privy to the power of subliminal messaging for decades. From a psychological perspective, explicit sexual imagery is effective at grabbing viewers’ attention and joined with subliminal messaging, an advertiser has the opportunity to set forth an agenda to sell a product or brand. Sex, as a method of capturing a consumer’s attention, is a powerful tool in infusing a message and possibly a green message. Kind of creepy? Maybe. Ethically questionable? Quite possibly. However, sex has often times been used as a successful subliminal technique in advertising.

On the other hand, The Federal Trade Commission Act Sec 5 – “prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in interstate commerce.” Transparency gives the sustainable message two feet to stand on, so delivering a clear and honest message to your audience is paramount. Check out the Direct Marketing Association’s Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice, which covers basic ethical marketing practices.

DO: Keep it real and relevant

The cultural shift from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution came with a shift in behaviors and many of these behaviors initiated the environmental issues that we face today. Since the change of our lifestyles played a major role in the onslaught of our urgent environmental issues, then a change in lifestyles will be a potent catalyst to working towards a resolve.

Appealing to lifestyle means making your message relevant and fun. A reason why sex doesn’t always sell is simply because consumers are more likely to identify with people who look like them, according to the 2008 book Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom. Dove launched its highly successful Campaign for Real Beauty ads in 2006 based on this notion and in a digital society of user-generated content, people are wanting to see less fantasy and more reality. When developing your message, ask yourself, how can this be applied to the day-to-day life of your target audience? Method, a company that specializes in personal and home care products, ran an ad that featured a couple sharing a moment of intimacy on a sex-friendly, method-clean floor. In the ad all you see are entangled legs sprawled on a hardwood floor with a mop leaning against a wall, no explicit nudity, but the point is effectively taken. Something as arguably mundane as cleaning your floors becomes not only sexy and fun, but healthy and safe. A great example of infusing a message using sex in a relevant and fun way.

DON’T Be obscene

Don’t let sex steal the show. Campaigns such as the Calvin Klein ads of the 1990’s banked on scantily clad models and celebrities, such as Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss, to sell the now infamous Calvin Klein underwear and jeans. Calvin cashed in quite handsomely with this ad campaign and as a result controlled almost 70 percent of the jeans market. But when fashion house Dolce & Gabbana ran a print ad in 2007, which was said to resemble a gang rape, the ad was pulled in response to protesters in the US and other countries, according to Lindstrom. The brand suffered as a result. About one-fifth of all ads in current years use overt sexual imagery based on the 2005 book Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal edited by Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase.

However, with the over-saturation of sexual images in the media, overt sexuality is becoming a less effective means of advertising. Lindstrom sources”a 2001 survey carried out by market research firm Market Facts, which showed that nearly twice as many people were more likely to buy an advertised product if it showed images of ‘love’ (53 percent) than if it showed images that alluded to sex (26 percent).” Sex in the media is not quite the attention-getter it was twenty or even ten years ago and on top of that, as consumer concerns about environmental issues grow, consumer action on these issues remains considerably low. Your best bet? Less is more. Sex is powerful, there is no question about that, but what can be used to one’s advantage is demanding attention in an over-saturated market by keeping it PG.

DO: get it on, knowledgeably
What the consumer knows may help you. There is an abundance of innovative and effective ad campaigns but the number of effective green campaigns are relatively small yet growing. In a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, of the 7,751 consumers polled “87 percent of these consumers are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the products they buy” but “only 33 percent of consumers say that they are ready to buy green products or have already done so.” In order to keep consumer interest and action in environmental and social impacts steadily growing, we must continue to cultivate creative methods of promoting lifestyles that support sustainability. For instance, the April 2009 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine featured a clever list of “Sexy Ways to Go Green” and Greenpeace also published a guide for “Getting it on for the Good of the Planet”. As consumers become more informed and empowered to make knowledgeable choices about what they buy, it is imperative when using tools like sex to sell green, the message stay consistent, informative and smart. Innovating the ways in which sex is interpreted by innovating the ways in which it is represented allows your message to standout in a crowd of look-a-likes.

To do it or not to do it
Sex is a part of our innate nature as members of the planet earth, so yes, it’s a great way to captivate an audience. But what’s more important is once you have their attention, what will you say and how will you say it? Advertising cannot single-handedly save the world, but it’s a powerful ally to have in completing the equation and sex is another potent ally when used effectively. For creatives, saving the world one ad campaign/marketing strategy at a time, this takes one part innovation, one part simplicity and two parts passion – the green kind.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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