The Breast of Advertising

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

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.)

Scientific studies have documented how breasts­­—and their size—can affect male behavior, according to Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. In a study recently reported in the French journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, sociologists arranged for a woman to hitchhike wearing augmented bras that inflated her natural A cups into B, and then C cups. Male drivers were about 60 percent more likely to give a lift to the woman with a C cup than an A cup. Meanwhile, breast size hardly affected women drivers’ decision to stop. Williams refers to another recent study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggesting that breasts attract eyeballs, literally. “The male pupil in the eye looks at a woman’s breast within 200 milliseconds,” she says. “It’s the first place they look, and the eyes linger longer on the breast region” than other body parts.

Attracting eyeballs is one thing, but the presence of breasts doesn’t necessarily mean a consumer will have a positive view of a product, or buy it. In his famous 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy advised marketers to handle breasts delicately: “Some copywriters… try to inveigle [consumers] into their ads with pictures of babies, beagles and bosoms. This is a mistake. A buyer of flexible pipe for offshore oil rigs is more interested in pipe than anything else in the world. So play it straight.”

The Ogilvy rule is still important today, says Ben Judd, associate business dean at the University of New Haven, who has conducted several studies pertaining to sexual imagery in ads. Judd calls naked come-ons in campaigns “a complete waste of time” since consumers tend to ogle the breasts, then forget the product. “The more nudity you show, the lower recall of the brand,” he says. For example, a 2001 study sponsored by American Demographics found that 61 percent of respondents who viewed sexualized ads were less likely to buy.

More recently, marketing professors at the University of Wisconsin found that sexy Super Bowl ads from 1989 to 2012 were 10 percent less likeable than other spots. Yet while none of Nielsen’s 10 best-liked 2012 Super Bowl ads were of a sexual nature, one bare-babed spot did rank among the 10 most-recalled ads: the much-buzzed-about spot for Go Daddy featuring Danica Patrick and Jillian Michaels brushing body paint on a near-naked model.

To Chuck Schroeder, partner at marketing firm Senior Creative People, relevance matters most. If brandishing breasts doesn’t flow organically, he says, the message goes wildly off course. A self-described “beer guy” who previously worked on the Strohs and Miller Lite accounts and briefly co-owned Saratoga Lager, Schroeder sees beer and breasts as a particularly stale combination. He recalls a famed spot from 1991, created by Hal Riney & Partners, that fell flat. “Remember the Swedish Olympic Bikini Team? Who did that?” asks Schroeder. “It was typical frat boy beer advertising with big-boobed models in bikinis. I think you remember the boobs.”

That controversial spot for Old Milwaukee, in fact, attempted to rejuvenate a flagging brand the consumer likely viewed as “my father’s beer,” recalls Patrick Scullin, now creative director of Ames Scullin O'Haire in Atlanta, who created the campaign at Hal Riney.  The spots featured buxom blondes parachuting in to surprise buddies fishing or camping. The slogan was “It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.” The campaign boosted sales but led to a sexual harassment lawsuit by female workers at Stroh Brewery Co., which at the time owned Old Milwaukee. The company settled out of court and retired the bikini team.

Of course, that didn’t stop brewers from churning out copycat ads ever since. A 2007 Miller Lite ad, for instance, featured a scantily clad Pamela Anderson in a pillow fight. And in a Bud Light Lime Web-only ad (labeled “pornohol” by watchdog group Alcohol Justice), topless UFC model Arianny Celeste cavorted on piles of loose limes as she squeezed the citrus and declared how thirsty she was.

When asked to comment, Paul Chibe, U.S. CMO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, gently chided his company over the ad, which was created before he came aboard last year. “I don’t think it’s ‘pornohol,’ but it’s certainly not in the direction I would have gone in,” he says.

Other companies, meanwhile, are sticking to the male-centric approach—among them, Go Daddy, with its explicit Super Bowl spots. When the Internet company’s founder and CEO Bob Parsons announced that he had purchased time during the 2005 Super Bowl, some bloggers argued that it was a waste of money. Ignoring the critics, Parsons bought a second spot in the same broadcast. The company’s first commercial, created by the Ad Store, lampooned Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” the year before, featuring a former porn actress in a slinky tank top emblazoned with the Go Daddy logo. As she testifies before a faux congressional committee—whoops!—one of her spaghetti straps pops off and her breasts nearly spill out. Cut to an elderly committee codger, wheezing into his oxygen mask.