Sex sells, as the age-old saying goes. But selling sex isn’t always quite so easy, especially in the UK, where the mere mention of sex toys, lube and blindfolds is enough to send heads diving under the covers. Compared to the rest of Europe, where Germany is the drunk uncle that isn’t afraid to say what he thinks at Christmas, Britain is a prude.
And due to strict rules around advertising these sorts of items on TV, outdoors and across the web, marketing adult products to the masses tends to be more missionary than mind-blowing. It’s no wonder so many Brits can’t pick up something from the ‘lifestyle and wellbeing’ aisle of Boots without blushing.
But attitudes towards sex and everything that comes with it are beginning to change – even the BBC broadcast a woman having an actual orgasm on TV in its recent drama Wanderlust – and brands are taking bigger steps, and risks, to break these so-called taboos.
As Sainsbury’s makes its debut into the sex toy market with a range of “affordable” vibrators (Feel the Difference, anyone?) online sex toy retailer Lovehoney is long into its mission to normalise sex toys in a “fun and entertaining” way for mainstream audiences and “encourage the British public to have better sex”.
Two years ago, its ‘Bonking Bunnies’ ad bounced on to UK TV screens. This year, to coincide with National Orgasm Day (of course), it managed to evade the regulatory clutches of Clearcast again and get an advert on TV featuring real couples climaxing.
For obvious reasons, retailers are not allowed to show realistic sex and pleasure products on TV before 11pm, meaning they have to figure a way to get the message across in an exciting and memorable way, without getting a telling off from regulators.
“Marketing sex toys has some obvious restrictions other than the standard advertising and consumer regulations, and we cannot and would not want to show products before the watershed [to ensure] children do not see our products while watching TV,” explains Lovehoney’s brand and marketing director, Helen Balmer.
“We can show product on TV after 11pm, however we have created brilliant creative, working closely with Clearcast, that removes the need for various edits. Our internal creative team works hard to create clever and entertaining ways to work within the limitations of social content and advertising.”
Getting the right tone of voice is key. While humour works well for Lovehoney, it isn’t always the right path to normalising topics and issues around sex.
Earlier this year, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer launched the UK’s first TV ad for Viagra after it became the first direct-to-consumer erectile dysfunction medicine to be sold in pharmacies without a prescription, meaning it is allowed to be advertised to the general public.
Due to the subject matter, Pfizer says it took a great deal of care to ensure its advertising was “subtle and in good taste”.
“We have found that taking a warm and positive tone is welcomed by men affected, but care must be taken not to trivialise the condition or be too humorous as erectile dysfunction can be a significant issue in many men’s lives,” explains Aurore Bourdeau, senior brand manager at Viagra Connect.
“Our current creative tested very positively with men, striking a balance between positivity and the delivery of a serious and significant health message for men with erectile dysfunction.”
Beyond the watershed
Few British high streets are complete without an Ann Summers; it has been the go-to place for sex toys, fancy dress and raunchy lingerie for almost 50 years. However, with the rise of ecommerce and growing competition from the likes of Lovehoney, Bondara and Amazon, Ann Summers is having to work much harder to stay on top in the digital age.
And with restrictions on broadcast media, Ann Summers has had to find new ways to reach its audience without making things too vanilla.
Using ‘Couples Appreciation Month’ in April as a springboard, it launched a social media campaign called ‘The 30 Day Sex Position Challenge’. For each day, and to keep things safe for mainstream publications, wooden dolls were used to create visual representations of different sex positions, each with a tongue-in-cheek name, including The Shard and The Butter Churner.
The campaign went viral and became the most cost-effective online campaign Ann Summers has ever had, showing there is an appetite for brands to be bold, inventive and definitely not shy when it comes to sex.
One new British lube brand, however, has found it difficult to hit the sweet spot on social media.
Facebook decided to pull the plug on Licx’s advertising for issues around content. Its USP is that it is vegan-friendly and free from plastics and parabens. Its core brand values are about being inclusive, safe, ethical and innovative. Very X-rated.
However, Licx has since found huge success on Amazon, which has become its main marketing platform. The lure? Its anonymity.
“Amazon is anonymous so people can go on there and there’s no one to judge, whereas when you like a Facebook page everyone can see and you can get a bit blushy about that if you’re British,” says Licx’s marketing director, Jess Smith.
“It was a really cost effective way of reaching people but also underpinned the whole idea that we were being transparent with people because we were having genuine customer reviews. It’s that personal recommendation that we all know does so well. And purchasing decisions are swayed by those views. ”
With a product that is used by all ages for both fun and medical reasons, the market Licx operates in is huge, meaning there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to marketing and tone of voice.
In order to gain popularity it’s no longer about the size of your marketing budget, it’s about your brand and product.
Jess Smith, Licx
For every person who is offended by crass or light-hearted humour towards sexual wellbeing, there is another who wants it to be funny and not taken too seriously.
“Targeted is the only way to do it moving forward,” Smith explains.
“While we want to have an inclusive product for everybody, I don’t necessarily think that every single marketing campaign we run will be suitable for everybody. Content we put on social media will be different to content with put in an NHS publication or a piece we’re running in the Guardian or The Times.”
Its marketing budget might be small compared to the likes of Ann Summers and Lovehoney, but Licx doesn’t think that matters in 2018.
“In order to gain popularity it’s no longer about the size of your marketing budget, it’s about your brand and product. And your product is the focus rather than how big your ads are on the Tube,” Smith says.
“Having great products is no longer good enough; people are looking for brands which support their values and transparency is key. With more platforms available to new brands to have a voice than ever before, social media provides a forum to build relationships with consumers via the likes of Instagram and Snapchat. It’s exciting that as a smaller, niche brand, you have a platform to do your storytelling.”
But whatever the size of the brand and budget, nothing can protect brands from online trolls. One quick visit to Durex’s Facebook page and it’s full of people making fun of each other, joking about sexual health and wellbeing and thinking they’re funny.
But that’s the risk a brand has to take when advertising in an entirely unregulated and democratised environment, where everyone and anyone can have a voice and opinion. Perhaps a few trolls are worth it for the clicks.
And we all know trolls don’t like to be seen in public. So perhaps one day Brits will be able to pick up a pack of Cum-Kleen personal wipes in the supermarket without feeling dirty.