Boomers Learned That “Sex Sells”

The era of the Boomer Generation was not in and of itself known for its overt decadence; that distinction belongs to the Roaring Twenties. As the country expanded after the Industrial Revolution of the late 1890s and early 1900s, we became a nation with more leisure time and more disposable income than ever. Perhaps that helped to act as the catalyst for a walk on the wild side. Prohibition also did its share to dangle forbidden fruit.

The use of sex to sell wasn’t new to the boomer era: The first known use of sexy women in ads and packaging dates back to the 1800s. By the time Prohibition had ended, the country was in the Great Depression. Before the nation could recover its sense of the sensual, World War II appeared on our doorstep, and all other matters seemed much less important.

After the War, the country was in the mood to celebrate, but things had changed. Now people talked about dreams of a better life and the wholesome families they would have. TV was gaining momentum, and boomer-era programming amplified the ideal of the perfect post-War family with shows like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver.

Advertising, both in print and on TV however, went another way. While Federal Communications Commission rules forbade TV shows from portraying a man and woman in the same bed, commercials on even those same shows were free to give a wink and a nod toward the sensual. Likewise print ads in magazines developed a feel for the double entendre as well as the overt use of sexuality to sell their products.

Unlike the saturation of sexuality in media that greets the younger generation today, most of the advertising implications of the early Boomer Generation ads went right over the heads of the kids, as intended. We weren’t the target audience for the message, our parents were. Marketers sold directly to kids when they were advertising toys, candy, games and cereal with not a scantily-clad body or double entendre in sight.

Some famous ad campaigns were developed in the 1950s, ’60s and into the early 1970s that were known for their overt use of sexual phraseology or imagery, while others in effect told the punch line, knowing the onlookers grasped the story. A case in point is Winston Super King cigarettes. For many years dancing couples pranced around the TV screen as they sang the famous jingle, “It’s not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long.”

In this classic, one woman is surrounded by men, each offering her a “Super King Size.”

Maidenform bras created a multi-year campaign that can only be described as sanctioned public exhibitionism. Each print or TV ad showed a free-spirited, independent-minded woman in a scene of everyday life wearing nothing on the top half of her body but a Maidenform bra. The tag line set the scenarios: “I dreamed I was … in my Maidenfrom bra,” as the woman modeled the bra while doing everything from walking dogs to winning elections; working in an office to going back to school; traveling to performing in a circus; winning a prize fight to fighting a fire. The product was intended to emphasize a woman’s curves, and according to what the ads were saying, just by wearing one a woman could be anything she wanted — in her dreams.

Even gum sellers got into the act. Doublemint gum held its famous tag line throughout the Boomer Era: “Double your pleasure, double your fun.” The long-running campaign always featured twins. The implications went far beyond the flavor of gum.

As seen with bras, products aimed solely at women were still almost exclusively designed by men. Perhaps that explains the famous Clairol hair coloring tag line, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Hairdressers have long held the reputation as confessors for their patrons, so the implication carried social weight by asking an open question on the minds of men, then answering it by naming someone who knows the secret.

While Mister Boomer remembers school chums talking about Winston commercials in hushed tones, he didn’t fully grasp the concept of sex in advertising until Noxema released a TV commercial for men’s shaving cream in 1966. Close-up photography displayed every nuance of Swedish model Gunilla Knutson’s face as she implored men to “take it off, take it all off.” As the scene changes to a man dutifully shaving his face as instructed, “The Stripper,” David Rose’s instrumental hit from 1962, brashly supplies the rhythm to his facial hair stripping.

This was back in the days when “Swedish” said before “blonde” was synonymous with saying “supermodel.”

The ad was a favorite of Mister B’s father, who always sat up in his lounge chair and commented when Gunilla arrived. Mister B’s mother tried to quell his enthusiasm with verbal rebukes, which is probably why Mister B paid more interest to this ad than he previously exhibited to others.

Once the 1970s were ushered in, ads continued to use sex to sell products. In 1977 a sultry woman exclaimed in TV commercials and print ads, “All my men where English Leather, or they wear nothing at all.”

Whether the product was aimed at women or men, sex was a strategy employed again and again in advertising. Thankfully, boomers were kept in the dark about these attempts at gaining attention to sell more products. They would learn soon enough.

When did you become aware of sexual innuendo and imagery in advertising, boomers?