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The Breast of Advertising

From Hooters to the cover of 'Time,' does the strategy sell or repel?

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Sales were “crazy, crazy,” at Sal Ali’s grocery and news shop in Manhattan, where issues of Time magazine featuring a controversial cover on attachment parenting were selling off the rack. It was the rack, of course, that generated so much interest for the May 21 cover story, illustrated with an attractive mom exposing her nearly naked breast to nurse her huge, 3-year-old son standing on a chair. Leafing through the newsweekly’s buzziest cover in recent memory, Ali couldn’t deny he enjoyed the brisk business, though the cover made him wonder: “What will be the difference between Time and Playboy if they exploit like this?”

Though Time executives trumpet the serious news value of their cover photo, the newsweekly was also hopping on a well-worn but reliable bandwagon. Far beyond selling bras, marketers flash young women’s breasts to hawk everything from chicken wings and cars to fishing line and, of course, magazine issues.

Sexual content is everywhere in advertising. A recent study in Advertising & Society Review found that 20 percent of all magazine and Web ads involve sexual images, which falls to just 10 percent for TV spots. The debate over breasts in ads and whether they attract, distract or repel rages on, with numerous studies warning that sexual imagery can be a too-risky strategy that alienates consumers, particularly women. Even some creatives argue that the tactic appeals to the lowest common denominator. Still, a long list of brands continue to use the anatomically blessed to sell their wares.

Unquestionably, Time’s cheesecake recipe succeeded. A spokeswoman for the magazine says the May 21 issue was this year’s best-seller so far. Newsstand sales for the issue were 50 percent higher than average over the last 26 weeks, according to Gil Brechtel, president and CEO of the Magazine Information Network, a research company whose clients include major magazine retailers such as Hudson News. That impressive jump compares to a 20 percent decline in Time’s single-copy sales in the last five years, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.

Sexing up a sober story on parenting is a brilliant market-shocking move, says Sallie Mars, chief diversity officer at McCann Worldgroup and the former director of creative services at McCann New York who coined the term “breast for success” marketing to critique sexist ads. Breastvertising must be “disruptive” to work, she says, likening Time’s cover designers to Renaissance painters showing the nursing mother and child. “They knew the power of the breast.”

A 2007 print campaign for Tom Ford for Men cologne, Mars says, took the strategy to a disruptive yet effective extreme. The ad shows a phallic bottle of cologne lodged between a nude female model’s cupped breasts. Her gaping, lipsticked mouth appears in mid-moan. “Because [Ford] is such an out gay man,” says Mars, he “had to go against the gay stereotype” to prove the scent wasn’t just for homosexuals. Shortly after the ad ran, the company reported overall stronger sales for the brand compared to the year before. (Estée Lauder, which owns Tom Ford Fragrances, declined to comment.)

Many restaurateurs build their businesses firmly on the breasts of bikini-clad waitresses. “Breastaurants” are so numerous, in fact, that there’s an entire uniform company devoted to selling tiny halter tops and hot pants. Breastaurants now gross $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year, up from approximately $1.5 billion five years ago. That startling growth dwarfs the 2.6 percent sales increase of the top 500 restaurant chains during the same period, says Darren Tristano, evp of Technomic, a food industry research firm. The marketing secret, he suggests, is selling the message that “you are going to receive attentive service from attractive servers, and that’s something most men don’t have at home.”

Dominating the category is Hooters, which opened its first restaurant in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983 and now boasts 430 locations in 27 countries, ringing up some $1 billion per year selling chicken wings, booze and merchandise. Though 68 percent of its patrons are male, Hooters offers a kids’ menu and woos women with promotions like free wings on Mother’s Day.

Meanwhile, Twin Peaks Restaurants opened its first sports bar and grill near Dallas in 2005 with a clear, dudes-rule pitch. “Obviously, Twin Peaks is a play on breasts,” says Meggie Miller, the company’s marketing director and self-described “expert in boobs.”

Billed as the “ultimate man cave,” the chain attracts a 90 percent male clientele and will soon open its 24th outpost, buoyed by 55 percent growth in sales in 2011 year over year. The company’s typical server, says Miller, is a “hot girl, but a hot girl next door.” To distinguish itself from Hooters, Twin Peaks’ strategy is to cater even more to men­—if that’s possible. (Hooters sued Twin Peaks over trade secrets in a case settled out of court.)

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