The Breast of Advertising

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

Fox broadcast the spot during the first half of the big game, but a scandalized National Football League pressured the network to pull the second. Go Daddy cried censorship, pocketed a Fox refund and basked in more than $11 million in free media, according to broadcast monitoring service Cision, formerly known as Multivision. Within a week, Go Daddy’s market share jumped from 16 percent to 25 percent. Sticking to its sexy-plus-sophomoric strategy ever since, the once-obscure brand now controls 53 percent of the domain and Web hosting market.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, is certain that companies flaunting breasts know what they’re doing, pointing to strong sales of intimate apparel, padded bras and silicon breast implants as evidence that women are also buying into bust appeal. Consumers may be unaware of the selling power of the bosom, the analyst says, since they assume they have total control of their buying decisions. “We can deny it all we want,” he says, “but [breasts] are a very subliminal piece of powerful marketing.”

But some brands may unconsciously push away women with such a naked ploy. “How many times have we seen the pair of tits sell the sneaker, the car, bottle of water. I perk up much more with campaigns that use humor,” says Jennifer Pozner, founder and executive director of advocacy group Women In Media & News.

The award for the most tasteless use of breasts in recent memory may go to Fiat, as seen in an outbreak of intense blogger criticism. In a spot by Leo Burnett, Argentina, a woman in a parked Fiat Palio confides to her male partner her intention to get a boob job. Next, the ecstatic man imagines a miniature version of himself diving between his girl’s future stripper-sized breasts. “All right,” he then says, feigning sensitivity, “if that’s what you want.”

The ad went viral, getting global exposure. And perhaps in Argentina and other parts of the world, only brutes buy Fiats. But in the United States, 41.9 percent of Fiat owners are women, according to the auto-data site (Fiat did not respond to requests for comment.)

Gratuitous breasts in ads are short-sighted, argues Kat Gordon, owner of the agency Maternal Instinct, which specializes in marketing to women. “Brands assume that men are their target audience when in reality women are doing the buying,” says Gordon, founder of the upcoming 3% Conference in San Francisco, meant to draw attention to the relatively low number of female creative directors, seeing as women account for as much as 85 percent of all consumer spending.

Giving an example of a missed marketing opportunity, Gordon singles out online florist Teleflora’s Super Bowl spot this year by in-house agency Fire Station. In the Valentine’s Day-themed commercial, supermodel Adriana Lima leans toward the camera in a low-cut dress and purrs, “Guys, Valentine’s Day is not that complicated. Give—and you shall receive.”

The stereotype that the gals gossip in the kitchen during the Super Bowl while the boys high-five in the den is, of course, flat wrong, as women comprise roughly 46 percent of the audience for that event. (The NFL licenses team logos to a women’s purse manufacturer for a reason.) Teleflora’s flowers-for-sex premise was among the most-cited on Twitter under the hashtag #notbuyingit, according to Imran Siddiquee, social media and communications manager for, a not-for-profit group that keeps track of demeaning media messages.

As Cindy Gallop, ex-chairman of the agency BBH New York, puts it: “Teleflora presupposed—this is a very Old World Order mind-set—that they are not targeting me, and I say that as a woman who sends flowers to her girlfriends.”

Years after David Ogilvy’s warning and the Old Milwaukee lawsuit, there’s evidence some beer brands may be rethinking their tactics. Miller Lite’s Pamela Anderson pillow fight has morphed into its “Man Up” spots. As for Bud Light Lime, Chibe of Anheuser-Busch promises no more citrus-squeezing topless models. “We’re not going to rely on stereotypes and things that may have played well with a male-centric audience years ago,” he responds. “That old imagery is too limited in its appeal and is not reflective of today’s society and today’s consumer.”

Benj Steinman, editor of the trade Beer Marketer’s Insights, says such softcore campaigns have bitten the dust, by and large. “Traditionally, top-tier brewers focus—too much, I would say—on the male 21-27 demographic,” he says. Today, brewers are more interested in cultivating women beer drinkers, he points out. “It’s called evolution.”