Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Death of Cool

This post is not about advertising that uses fear, only an ad that comes across as kind of icky today.

The ad to your left is for the Way In boutique at Harrod's, and it hails from the year 1969. The boutique was Harrod's gambit to freshen up their staid image by offering apparel and attitude for the era's hip, happening, way out crowd.

The ad does things that were considered daring then, but just seem creepy now. For starters, it uses the word "sex" five times, two of them in the headline. Not that I object to the word or what it stands for, but that seems a bit like overkill for a time when sex was still a word mostly whispered. (Advertisers have known the attention-getting power of words like "sex" for years, and I have to hand it to the copywriter who came up with a way of using it twice in the headline, something that probably earned him/her an eventual promotion.) All that sex must have been shocking in the day, but strikes the contemporary viewer as just plain tacky. We have much more sophisticated ways of using sex to sell these days.

You can read all the copy by clicking on the photo for a larger version, but here are the howlers. It begins, "Male or female, you're all the same to us at the Way In. Our latest range of clothes looks just as good on the weaker sex as it does on the strong one."

Weaker sex? Strong one? If the universe's wires suddenly got crossed and this ad somehow ran today Harrod's would be boycotted, the story on cable news outlets for at least 36 hours. Eventually there would be apologies from Harrod's, and firings, and the slow, gradual rebuilding of goodwill and sales.

After daring users to visit and try on their one-sex trousers, shirts, coats, hats and swimwear (I'm guessing the swimwear tops were for women only) it continues, "One warning. If you come in to buy a surprise present for your nearest and dearest, be careful. They might be there buying one for you."

Oh, the titillation!

It's 1969, men and women are liberated. They are having sex and not afraid to wear one another's clothes. And judging from the ad copy's wink-wink tone, this kind of shopping could lead to having even more sex.

(Little could Harrod's know, but in just four short years stores like Sears and J.C. Penney would be offering his-and-hers cardigan sweaters and turtlenecks and jumpsuits. The idea wasn't to spice up your relationship, just provide ensembles that would look good on bowling night.)

The Way In logo is a naughty little keyhole, with the store's name tucked into it in crowded calligraphy. It's almost enough to make me wonder if the boutique had a discreet entrance in some private corner of the store.

The white-on-black copy space adds to the sense of the forbidden, but otherwise the ad's layout could not be more conservative or classic for the time. It looks just like any other ad that might have run back then for Volkswagen, Hertz or the Red Cross. Sure, the photo is probably a bit risque for the time, but if this ad was created today, it would feature a lot more photos of friendly bottoms in underwear, including a male-male pair, a female-female pair and a few more pair of them all in different color combinations.

To paraphrase another popular ad of the time, we've come a long way, baby.

Compare and contrast with this recent ad for Calvin Klein's CKOne cologne. Unisex again. But what a change in almost 40 years.

In addition to showing us something that actually looks like sex, complete with semi-nudity, it appears some of the models have been chosen for their androgynous quality and dressed in a way to obscure their gender.

No come-hither headline. No copy about the thrilling escapades you'll enjoy when you wear CKOne and little else. Just two couples, tentatively but passionately exploring one another's bodies, who look like they're likely to turn around any minute now and really get the party started.

My point in this post that's gone on longer than I intended? We have come a long way, baby. We've gone a long way, too when it comes to sex and advertising. I sometimes wonder how much further we can go. (There's that song from Oklahoma again.) What body part will be revealed? Which act depicted? It's not that I object, it's just that I can't think of anything myself at the moment.

But when I see it, I know I'll be shocked. At least for a little while.

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