You Can’t Have It Both Ways, It Seems

Sep 29, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

By Vanessa Horwell

 I’m going beyond the press release and into advertising territory in this column, after a recent article in The New York Times‘ “On Advertising” column grabbed my attention. It discussed the trials and tribulations of a new female “enhancement” product that is having a hard time getting airplay. Pun very much intended.Most readers of that article would surmise that its purpose was to highlight the disparity between what is acceptable in advertising — or not — when it comes to “our” sexuality, as well as the double standards that exist within the advertising world today. To me, the article also raises another red flag: the very aggressive and divisive political atmosphere that has engulfed our country when it comes to women’s choices and the freedom and control that we have over our bodies. And let’s not forget the media cohorts, either. However, as this is not the appropriate place to discuss political issues, I won’t. So let’s go back to advertising.

Advertise like it’s 1959

When it comes to today’s media market (or did I mean to say meat market), one could argue that society has progressed a great deal since the early days of television and print advertising, à la “Mad Men.” More and more, we have been exposed to TV shows, commercials and ads that feature interracial families, homosexual couples (albeit male, predominately), and an altogether a more laid-back attitude when it comes to discussing and displaying things of a sexual nature. This, however, is not the case when it comes to female sexuality — which seems to be as taboo as ever if we take the boycott of this female product as an indicator.

Zestra Essential Arousal Oils, a product designed to enhance the female sexual experience, is struggling to find networks or publications that will run its ads.

I have to say that Zestra’s commercial is really rather lame, especially compared with ads for same category products like KY gel and Trojan condoms. It’s a number of middle-aged women talking about their diminishing sex drive due to getting older and having children. Hello out there — there is nothing remotely “inappropriate” about either, and I can very confidently make this statement as a mother of two almost grown-up children, and as a woman approaching the company’s target customer’s age.

The company has had its ad pulled from prime time on most major networks — the very same networks and stations that run male enhancement ads for Viagra and Cialis ad nauseum. Even Facebook pulled the ads after just a couple of weeks.

In the end, Zestra has had to settle for the graveyard shift — after midnight — when its target audience is fast asleep, dealing perhaps with hot flashes and worries about their university-bound children and the associated financial obligations. And I can tell you, that is definitely not sexy, on air or in real life.

So why this double standard? Why is it okay to publicize men’s sexual needs, but not women’s?

Looks like we can’t have it both ways

What this situation makes apparent is that while we have become more accepting of certain social issues — we have no problem watching “The Situation” get his rocks off with several females at a time — there is still an enormous double standard in acknowledging the comfort level of women’s sexuality, in any medium. While we seem to be perfectly fine with ads showing women as sex objects (Heidi Montag, Kim Kardashian, et al.), it suddenly becomes unacceptable once real women start discussing their real sexual needs and desires.

Since when did American media become uncomfortable with recognizing the sexual needs of women equally? Are we less progressive than the Europeans, or even the British — supposedly prudish — who quite openly discuss sexual topics like S&M and sex toys in their daily papers?

Watch the ad and tell me what you think. Is it so racy for prime time compared with its male counterparts? Are the networks right to ban an ad like this? And what message are they sending to American women?

About Vanessa Horwell

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at

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