Sex lifts sales to the hereafter

Invoking the Sistine Chapel to justify the use of nudity in ads implies a similar spiritual purpose, rather than a desire to grow profits

Thanks to Marketing Week’s resourceful Diary, we were able to enjoy Talk Radio’s promotional brochure featuring a close-up of a jock strap filled with what looked like a pound and a half of unwanted French Granny Smiths.

The picture and the accompanying sales message, “We’ve got them… covered”, was intended to tell marketers about the station’s extensive sports coverage, explained the Diary. I doubt it had much impact. Marketers are, with a few notable exceptions, a grown-up lot unlikely to be excited, stimulated, shocked or indeed moved in any way by the contemplation of gonads.

Such weary insouciance is not to be found among the salt-of-the-earth folk who inhabit our second city. Regional marketing magazine Adline reports that a new student travelcard campaign by bus company Travel West Midlands (TWM) has caused, to use a circumlocutory phrase much favoured by former Prime Minister John Major, “not a little controversy”.

Posters, leaflets and student press ads, says Adline, featured naked men and women with “strategically placed” travelcards under the strapline, “Covers so much, costs so little”.

“The stir created by the ads was such that the campaign featured strongly in the regional press, radio and TV for a fortnight – extra publicity that was welcomed with open arms by TWM.”

It was either an exceptionally slow news fortnight in the West Midlands or the region’s population is unnaturally moved by partial nudity. Then again, we are not really one nation. What do we who live in other parts of the country know of Birmingham and its people? The models used by the bus company are perfectly proportioned and invitingly posed. Might not that explain the local stir and the controversy that was not little?

Being sturdily independent and provincial, Birmingham folk probably eschew the modish metropolitan concern with healthy eating and exercise, and as a consequence disport themselves in physical shapes and sizes that would have had a Classical Greek sculptor calling for a larger studio and more marble. To the roly-polys of Birmingham, the Venuses and Adonises of the West Midland bus company must have seemed alien and threatening creatures sent to disturb the equilibrium and unsettle the appetite.

The region’s students, however, are drawn from all corners of the kingdom, infusing Birmingham with the eager curiosity and hot blood of cosmopolitan youth. During the first week of the campaign, sales of TWM student travelcards were up 81 per cent on the corresponding period last year, proving yet again the truth of the adage that sex sells.

Or does it? Gail Jones, sales manager at TWM, bridles at the suggestion that sex was used to shock or sell. It was merely an “attention getter”, she says. “Placing the card strategically over the models gave power to the message. But the message came first.”

This invites us to believe that potential buyers of student cards first saw the message and then the attention-getter, which is all a bit odd. But, her job done, Gail quickly wearies of the argument.

“Full frontal nudity would never be allowed in mainstream advertising in this country,” she says, “and even though I do not particularly advocate its use, I really do think the main problem is that people see nudity and think of sex. Why the body can’t simply be seen as perfectly normal, aesthetically pleasing and a feat of engineering genius is beyond me.” Like a bus, you mean?

It is difficult to know how to correct the widespread, persistent and aberrant inclination to see nudity and think of sex, other than to use real, honest, naked Brummies in ads rather than models. That would meet the requirement of being perfectly normal, at least in Birmingham, and remind us more forcibly still that the engineer who could incorporate such tolerances in his design was indeed a genius. And to satisfy two out of three criteria isn’t bad.

However, all this misses the point. For it would seem that Gail’s buses take their student cargoes far beyond Corporation Street or Smallbrook Ringway, further even than Hagley Road West.

“Take Michelangelo, for instance,” she says. “He was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to repaint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. His painting of the Creation of Adam shows Adam completely naked – and if it was good enough for the Pope, who am I to argue?”

Julius’ aims in celebrating the Creation through an enduring work of art were to worship God, to inspire and reinforce faith, and to show through the mystery and wonder of the numinous that eternal salvation is the reward of all believers. What was good enough for Julius is good enough for Gail, so we must assume her purpose is not so much to maximise the income of TWM, a paltry aim when all is said and done, as to offer bus passes to eternal life on exceptionally favourable terms.

As for the human failing of seeing nudity and thinking of sex, that is explained, as is so much else, by the forces of conservatism, and will be put right in due course. But please give him time. Tony’s a pretty okay kind of guy, but he’s only got one pair of hands. Just like the rest of us, really. Only more so.

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