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Selling Sex and Candy?

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I watch some commercials on television and am amazed that the corporate sponsor really signed off on the product. Think about the expressions on the faces of the dark suits in the executive boardroom when they were presented with some of the commercials running on TV right now.

Take Jack in the Box. "Jack Box," the fast-food chain's mascot -- a man wearing what looks like a Ping-Pong-ball head or a snowman getup with a clown hat -- is sitting playing a game much like Scrabble with a beautiful blonde. He lays out the nonword "swavory," selling a waffle breakfast sandwich for having savory sausage and sweet maple waffles. The blonde then lays on the board letters reading "No Nookie." Jack says, "What's that supposed to ... ? Oh." Is sexual slang really necessary to sell breakfast sandwiches during prime time?

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn had this reaction to Jack's misfortune: "The resulting image in my mind's eye is cricky -- a combination of creepy and icky."

That's not as edgy as a new TV ad for Skittles, the popular children's candy -- meaning the ad is targeted to children. It begins with a young woman kissing a walrus. This is not a peck; it's a moaning make-out session. "What are you doing?" asks another woman who discovers them. "Hey, this isn't what it looks like," says the kissing woman on the couch. "Good, because it looks like you're making out with my boyfriend," the second woman says. The other replies: "This isn't Bobby. It just looks like Bobby."

At least the audience might think the "boyfriend" here might be a human in someone's mind. But unlike the Snickers ads, the walrus never becomes someone else. It remains an ugly, flippered, mustachioed walrus. The kissing girl says of the walrus, "He says he's like these new Skittles Riddles. The colors on the outside don't match the flavors on the inside." She flirts with/teases the walrus with the candy, "You can't have it; you can't have it," before returning to the make-out session.

The advocacy group One Million Moms launched a campaign protesting the ad to Wrigley, arguing "not only is it disgusting, it is taking lightly the act of bestiality. While the shock value of this ad may draw attention to your product, it is harmful to children."

Let's fact it, this is a thoroughly bizarre way to sell candy to children, if the message is focused on taste, quality, nutrition -- anything like that. But it's not. Commercials are designed to be cool, to make young people point and laugh. So the dark-suited executives quietly, and surely uncomfortably, acquiesce. They will agree to try anything to scandalize people into paying attention to their sales pitch.

The walrus in the commercial is not a real animal, but something animatronic. After all, Wrigley doesn't want to upset the people who protest animal cruelty during filming. On the other hand, upsetting people who protest indecencies to children doesn't bother them at all.

In the world of print ads, the candy makers at Mentos are using nudity to sell their new "Pure Fresh" gum -- or to be precise, they're covering nudity with their product. In an ad in Maxim, they cover the rear end of a young woman pulling down her panties with a package of gum with the slogan "Look, we have gum!"

There are also ads like this in more mainstream magazines with large teenaged readerships. In an ad slated to run in the celebrity glossies People, In Touch and Us Weekly, the gum covers up an accidentally exposed woman's breast at "(Wardrobe) Malfunction Junction! She took two steps into the limelight and her dress gave way." In an ad planned for Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, the Mentos gum package covers the crotch of a streaker at a soccer game.

The ad makers at The Martin Agency of Richmond explained to Ad Week that the ads "spotlight the juxtaposition between the innocent quirkiness of Mentos and the not-so-innocent content of the ads." Translation: Sex sells.

But do they have to use sex to sell products designed for children? Where do they stop? Using sex to sell Cap'n Crunch cereal or Oscar Mayer Lunchables? Scripting make-out sessions with Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger? How about Butt-Naked Barbie having sex with Ken? The world of commercials is devolving just like the rest of television. Shock wins, and good taste is routed.

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