Reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Using sex in adverts to sell food is like a 'creepy dad joke'

Who wants to buy veges that make you think of the bedroom?

New advertising campaigns using sex to sell food have been slammed by experts, including one who has described a promotion for mushrooms as a "creepy dad joke".

Ads using sex to sell have been around for decades, but some are questioning whether they're still relevant, and to whom.

Kate Humphries, head of creative advertising at Auckland's Media Design School said ads for Meadow Mushrooms, which asked consumers if they fancied a "curvy, earthy brunette," or a "petite blonde", were lazy and old fashioned.

"What are they thinking? If a student put that out, we'd say: 'Try harder'," she said.

"Do you really want an old-fashioned voice that belongs to a dad - and a creepy, Rolf Harris dad at that?

"I always put that filter through my students. Brands can still use sexiness to sell a product - but it can be done in a more relevant way."

The company also has an ad asking whether consumers want a "big rich beef cake".

Using sex to sell is back in the spotlight after a groundswell of complaints on social media about a relaunched campaign that "sexualises" Burgen bread, asking consumers "are you a Burgen virgin?"

An accompanying picture shows a woman in her pyjamas in bed eating the bread. Another ad in the same campaign uses a male model (see right).

According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates advertising in New Zealand, there have been no complaints about the mushroom ads.

In 2014, two complaints were received about the old Burgen "virgin" campaign, but neither were upheld, chief executive Hilary Souter said.

Souter said this did not mean future complaints could not be upheld, as community standards changed over time.

But the authority tried to reflect, rather than set those standards.

Often changes would be made through public pushback, Souter said, pointing to a recent campaign against Wicked Campers' use of sexist, derogatory and offensive slogans on vehicles that led to the chief censor, the police, local businesses and politicians getting involved in a conversation about whether they should be tolerated.

PR expert Deborah Pead said the use of sex to sell products was still relevant, but companies needed to be careful about how they did it.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with a little bit of sex, as long as it's well executed and accurately targeted." She said the mushrooms ads appeared to be badly researched and "a little bit off".

"When you do use sex to sell and it's not well targeted, you end up alienating a big part of your audience," Pead said.

"You can make a brand sexy without the gratuitous 'rumpy-pumpy' sexualisation like that.

"If you try to target that kind of ad to a more sophisticated consumer, you will lose them."

The ASA's code states that sexual appeal should not be used "in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people in society to promote the sale of products or services.

"In particular people should not be portrayed in a manner which uses sexual appeal simply to draw attention to an unrelated product."

A spokeswoman for Meadow Mushrooms declined to comment when asked if the company thought the ads were "sexualising" mushrooms; who the target audience was; which agency created the advertisements and whether they were supposed to be "tongue in cheek".

Burgen spokesman Justin Albas said there was a "relatively low level" of negative feedback about the campaign and the company thought people got the point of the ads.

After the campaign first ran in 2014, he said it was positively received and was overwhelmingly successful in introducing new consumers to the product, which was the idea behind the use of the word "virgin".

He said the ads did not show sexual activity, nor were they suggestive.

"Burgen bread is featured in the vast majority of shots."

- NZ Herald

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