Sex's ability to sell brands is often seen as an article of faith in the ad business, and the Super Bowl is the biggest house of worship.
Ever since Noxema first raised eyebrows in 1973 with its "Let Noxema cream your face" spot—featuring Farrah Fawcett slathering the famous cheeks of Joe Namath with shaving cream—advertisers have vied to see who can push things the furthest, resulting in Cindy Crawford donning short shorts for Pepsi (1991), Megan Fox taking a bubble bath for Motorola in 2010 and, since 2005, GoDaddy doing just about everything that can be done with bare skin and Danica Patrick.
But this flash-and-fantasy trend shows signs of ebbing for Super Bowl XLIX, with relatively little flesh compared to the steam room that was the 2013 Super Bowl. Even GoDaddy, the game's old reliable frat-house content machine, has eased off—shooting a spot about a puppy (though that didn't exactly keep controversy at bay).
What's especially interesting about this trend is how long it took to happen. Brands have continued to turn out a steady stream of sexually themed Super Bowl ads in recent years (scroll to the bottom for a video sampling, even though there's long been ample evidence that such ads actually don't work so well.
In 2013, for example, researchers at the Association for Psychological Science demonstrated that sexual images turned off women from buying the product advertised. Maybe that's not surprising, but sexy ads often miss the mark with men, too. A 2005 MediaAnalyzer survey revealed that sexy ads had a "vampire effect" on male viewers—drawing their attention to bare body parts to the point where they forgot about the product being advertised. In 2012, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire—who looked at Super Bowl ads specifically—concluded that spots with sexual content were 10% less appealing than those without. As study coordinator Prof. Chuck Tomkovick told USA Today in 2012: "The more you put sex in an ad, the less it is liked."
The latest data come from analytics firm Ace Metrix, which has examined Super Bowl spots for the past five years. Its analysts found that commercials with overtly sexual themes (and that's about 11 percent of them, by the way) scored 8% lower in creative effectiveness, which includes measurements like watchability and persuasiveness.
The problem, said Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll, is that even though the Super Bowl is arguably now as family-oriented a media event as there is, many marketers still create content as though only dudes are sitting on the couch. "Sex-oriented ads may do better in a male-oriented environment, but when you run it [during the Super Bowl], where women and kids and men are all watching together, you get different reactions," he said. "Brands underestimate how much overlap there is."
Here's how much: Of the millions who watch the Super Bowl, nearly half (46 percent) are now women—a percentage that equated to 50 million viewers last year. And, considering that women determine an estimated 85 percent of all brand purchases, airing commercials that appeal to them (or at least don't turn them off) seems like a no-brainer.
So why have brands kept up with the burlesque routine? Setting aside the now routine trick of making an ad so sexy that it will deliberately get banned (and, hence, get eyeballs for basically nothing on YouTube), Daboll believes that many marketers are fully aware their ads will turn off women, but consider their brands or their creative work to be the exception to conventional wisdom. "Every year, you have some brand who thinks they know better," he said.
Daboll also posits that the overwhelming pressure to create something truly different in a media setting where brands are already presenting their most daring work can easily lead to crossing the line. "Super Bowl watchers want surprises," he said. "Brands want to be edgy and go to the line because it breaks through and creates attention. But they're getting off on the ego of the stage."
But, clearly, not forever. Even though Go Daddy just pulled its "Journey Home" spot over allegations that it promoted puppy mills, the fact that it went with Buddy the puppy over the usual cast of chesty babes is "quite significant," Daboll said. "It certainly is a course correction." Ditto, apparently, for Mercedes-Benz, which in 2013 gave us Kate Upton sudsing up a CLA sedan in slow-mo, but this year moved into a safer lane with computer-generated forest animals. Could it be that brands are finally decided not to have some skin in the game?
"It may take a couple of years," Daboll said.
Below, a look at a few of the sexy Super Bowl ads from recent years, and why they didn't always get a bang for the buck.
Go Daddy's 2013 spot, "Perfect Match," in which a nerdy dude makes out—suction noises included—with supermodel Bar Refaeli, was supposed to illustrate how the Web-hosting company had a sexy side and a smart side. But Ace Metrix found a mere 4 percent of viewers thought the ad was sexy. ("Gross" was more like it.) What's more, this spot performed 25 percent below the average spot in the big game.
Of all the Super Bowl spots that fall into the "sexual" category, well over half of them feature a celebrity. While historically that's usually meant a woman, last year H&M decided to have a dude—the inimitable David Beckham—take it all off. The spot sparked mixed reactions, from CNN's Roland Martin sending a homophobic tweet to some calling the spot a winner. But it also scored below the norm on Ace Metrix's efficacy scale.
While this ad scored slightly above average, Daboll believes it was mostly because viewers liked seeing the cast of Full House back together. Others were less pleased. "This is kinda gross," said Major League Baseball's Sports on Earth site. The conservative Radiance Foundation blasted the ad on Facebook for "scrap[ing] the bottom of the yogurt barrel with add [sic] suggesting oral sex."
Over the years, consumers have been well conditioned to expect bulging briefs and plenty of flesh from Calvin Klein. Even so, 2013's "Concept"—featuring a 360-degree view of 21-year-old New Jersey model Matthew Terry—was the lowest-scoring ad in the sexy category in Ace Metrix's study, ranking 34 percent below average. Said one critic: "Kudos for finding a way to objectify men and assume that women are just as shallow as the other sex!"
There's no data available yet for how these 30 lacy, cleavage-laden seconds from Victoria's Secret will fare on Sunday. But if you're in the business of selling intimate apparel, can you really be faulted for creating a fleshy ad? "I'd have made it less about men and only about a woman's self image," said Daboll, who points out that while this spot is obviously going for male eyeballs, it's doing so at the expense of a good many female shoppers. "And Victoria's Secret's business is what percent women? A lot."