Cleverly insouciant or just eye-rollingly bad?

I’m all for a good double-entendre, but…

playtex fresh and sexy beaver ad


Generally speaking, it takes a lot to get me riled up about ‘sexism’ in advertising, and I’m not easily offended by references to sex:  I had no problems, for example, with that Chapstick ad that got everyone so worked up, and my big problem with those ‘Hail to the V’ ads was that they seemed kind of racist.  (I did draw the line at those rape-referencing Belvedere ads, but they were pretty egregious.)


I have to say I’m not loving these print ads for these Playtex Fresh + Sexy Wipes.  There are 4 in all:  2 directed at women (peaches and beavers) and two directed at men (knobs and peckers).

Playtex Fresh and Sexy print ads

Unlike Summer’s Eve and other brands who refer to ‘intimate care’ and ‘freshness’, Playtex Fresh + Sexy wipes are euphemism-free:  Their website tells you, in large friendly letters, that they’re designed to be used before and after sex.  Okay, fine, I guess…it sort of gets me thinking about a Victorian-era prostitute having a quick “whore’s bath” between clients, eking out her days in a Dickensian garret only to die of syphillis before the age of 25, leaving a couple of tragic starving orphans in her wake – but I realize I’m pretty much alone in that little flight of fancy.   And anyway, sometimes I get sick and tired of euphemisms in advertising.  I was well into my teens before I realized that ‘constipation’ referred to bowel movements: All the Correctol laxative ads featured water droplets, so I thought it was for people who couldn’t urinate!

No, I think what’s bothering me about these ads is that it feels like we’ve now crossed the final frontier of stuff to get needlessly insecure about. We’re already paranoid that we won’t attract sexual partners due to our dandruff, our flyaway hair, our incipient wrinkles, our untanned and jiggly bodies, our bad breath and yellowing teeth, our unmanicured nails and our rough, dry elbow skin.  Now, having passed all those tests and successfully lured someone home with us, we have to worry that everything will fall apart once they get a whiff of our genitalia.  And it’s the quantity issue that’s particularly galling:  These wipes aren’t going to give us better sex, just more of it.

So my issue here isn’t actually with sexism (the ads are good at making both sexes feel bad about themselves), or even with the use of words like ‘pecker’ or ‘beaver’.  No, I think the real problem is that these ads seem to imply that words like ‘pecker’ and ‘beaver’ automatically render them amusing and ‘edgy’, when in fact they just make the reader feel kind of depressed about how everyone else seems to be hooking up all the time while they haven’t had a sleepover date in months.  

I’m well aware that I’m not the target here.  No doubt the target market is urban singles, 18-34, whereas I’m a 40-something married person who happens to be 8.5 months pregnant as I write this.  And when you’re launching a new product, a little shock value (“OMG, they used ‘beaver’ in an ad!”) is a good way to get some quick brand awareness. But I can’t help thinking that if you’re going to position your product as a sex aid, maybe you’d do better to make it just a little more aspirational.


Focus groups: A $50,000 reminder that your social circle is very, very small

Did you even look at that data afterwards?

really cool focus group people


In my 15 years in marketing, I’ve seen a lot of focus groups.  I’ve had to recruit for them, write briefs for them, conduct them, spend hours watching them, and, not infrequently, try to prevent the client from getting drunk while watching them.  (If you’ve ever been behind the one-way glass yourself, you know that by the last focus group at 8pm, it’s a miracle if the whole panel isn’t totally loaded through sheer boredom.)

Here is what I’ve learned:

  • 99% of the time, focus groups are a waste of money

Oh, I know – you’re thinking I’m a Luddite, or I just didn’t do them right, or I didn’t ask the right questions, or something.

Here’s why I know I’m right:

  • In all my years – as a junior ad agency type who had no control over the process or outcome, and as a senior advertising type who supposedly ran the whole thing – I have never seen a focus group overturn whatever preconceived notions the team had before the whole grisly business
  • When a focus group ‘insight’ does get used, it’s in exactly the way it wasn’t supposed to be:  as an anecdotal piece of evidence.  “Remember that woman in the focus group who kept saying that she’d never buy cereal in a red box?  That’s why we definitely have to repackage.”
  • I have never met a roomful of people more judgemental and dismissive than a bunch of agency types and their client watching a group of people who aren’t like them
  • There’s nothing you can learn from $50,000 worth of focus groups that you couldn’t learn by just going out on the street and asking a variety of people what they think of your product.


The act of observing changes the observed

In the real world, people who don’t work in marketing don’t think about your marketing concept or your packaging or your Big Idea for more than 5 seconds at a time, and they definitely don’t spend much time analyzing their ‘feelings’ about what they buy.  

Asking them to read a couple of blurbs about your product, then spending 30 minutes discussing their reactions to those blurbs, may give you insight into their reading comprehension and imagination, but it won’t get you even close to an objective assessment of the potential success of your concept.  

(Want proof?  Show a roomful of people a written explanation of 3 concepts, and ask for their thoughts.  Then show them the advertisements that resulted from those concepts and ask them again.  I promise you that their responses won’t be remotely the same.)

The one benefit of focus groups

With only minor exceptions, people who work in marketing are shockingly homogeneous.  We dress the same, listen to the same music, have the same worldviews, and are united in our tacit assumption that anyone who doesn’t work in advertising is significantly less cool (and successful) than we are.  We tend to forget that our purchasing decisions aren’t, in fact, indicative of the rest of the world’s.

Focus groups are a handy reminder that, in fact, there are all kinds of different people out there.  You know, people who manage to get through the day without loving sushi, knowing who Seth Godin is, or wondering when Tindersticks is going to put out a new album.  And while focus groups aren’t going to give you that Killer Insight that will totally transform the way you advertise your product, they may just remind you that the people buying most of that product don’t look (or act) like you.