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Locomotive Breathes down Your Neck: Sexuality in Israeli Advertising

Advertising resembles a shrewd Jewish matchmaker, who needs to 'sell' a blushing bride to a bashful and stubborn bridegroom, whose mind is occupied with studying the Torah and not with women. Like a matchmaker, advertising too is supposed to mediate between two parties – the manufacturer and the consumer. It needs to draw the consumer's attention to the product's advantages and virtues, while doing its utmost to hide the product's flaws. To promote a product, advertising utilizes sex as a major tool, just like a matchmaker who impresses on potential bridegroom that the main rationale for getting married is the precept of procreation, or, more precisely, an access to a readily available sex partner. And indeed, sex is omnipresent in advertising, on billboards and in print, television and radio commercials. Overt or covert sex is a reliable and tested means for drawing the attention of a passerby, a magazine reader, or a television viewer; once captured in the sex net, one is bound to be ensnared in the net of consumerism. In a nut shell, advertising serves the producer in his or her attempt to transform the consumer into an insatiable buying machine…


Sex with Everything

Advertising clings to human needs, wishes, fears and anxieties, as well as dreams and desires and uses them as 'conductors' for drawing attention and, eventually, for drawing cash. Sex involves all of these features, in abundance: it is a basic human existential need; it is the predicate and object of our wet dreams, desires and fears; and it is an important part of our ability to belong to a coveted social class and a reference group. Hence sex is an excellent 'conductor' of commercial messages and an ideal enabler of emotional manipulations.

However, in recent years, it seems that sexual representations, images and symbols inundate commercials, whether warranted or not; in our context, whether the product is intrinsically related to sex or is as far from it as sexual frigidity is from a Frigidaire. The "x-rated mind" rules whether we are offered undergarments, clothes, panty hoses and condoms, or tempted to buy sweet snacks, chocolate bars, or ice cream cones.

Advertisers are, of course, aware of the link between food and sex and utilize it to promote their products. Thus chocolate snacks and ice cream cones are publicly transformed into fornicators.

As I write these words, I see in my mind's eyes the new television commercials of Elite and Vered Hagalil (Israel's leading chocolate manufacturers), in which lecherous chocolate bars are seen unwrapping or rather undressing and penetrating each other… But these moving images were preceded by their two dimensional 'forefathers,' who had been featuring in Israeli glossy journals for a decade or more.


Peeping into 'Sucking'

Associating formally a narrow long and sweet chocolate snack and erect and alert penis yearning to penetrate a woman's cavity does not require an overdeveloped imagination. When this cavity is a mouth, the inferred act is oral sex, or – less euphemistically – 'cock sucking.' Chocolate snacks are, as it is well known, heartily eaten and chewed on, by men and women alike, rather than sucked on. However in most cases commercials opt for demonstrating sweet snack consumption through female-male oral sex.

In its Tortit advertisement campaign, Israeli sweet snacks manufacturer C.D. presented a good looking young woman inserting a snack into the gap between her parted lips. The slogan printed beneath the image read: "Tortit – my little sweet pleasure." The visual and verbal message left no room for doubt as to the nature of that pleasure. Later in the campaign, a devoted mother was seen initiating her daughter into the appropriate technique of inserting the snack into her mouth. Elite's Cocolad went even further: in a 'live broadcast,' the phallic snack stormed into a white coconut womb. In the heat of its passion, it melted into chocolaty pre-ejaculate fluid…

No doubt, since Sigmund Freud revealed the sexual secrets of seemingly innocent images, we are automatically conditioned to understand in a certain way images such as a train rushing into a tunnel, a snake crawling into a dark hole and a paint brush 'licking' the 'mouth' of a paint tube… Thus when we see red parted female lips that reveal the pearly-white underpants – begging your pardon – teeth of a damsel, we think of oral sex (preferably with Marilyn Monroe whose cherry red lips predate those of her more recent imitators such as Madonna).

This association is to be found also in a local ad of Wrangler Jeans, in which the voluptuous female lips are about to devour the button of the (male) model's pants. The slogan states-promises: "I don't know many men who could resist the temptation." And indeed, many men were tempted, aroused, by that ad. The ad for Tene Noga's Vivoli Ice Cream offers us the flavor and coolness of creamy ice cream. However the advertiser chose to associate licking ice cream with another kind of 'licking.' A model in an unequivocal position is seen licking off a drop of pinkish ice cream of the tip of her finger. Her pink finger merges with the pink ice cream becoming the head of an erect penis, which is lustfully licked. Above the head of the model appear the words: "Give it to me! Give it to me!" – completing, as it were, the 'soundtrack' of this blue movie…

Text or slogan assists in deflecting the benign meaning of a photo into ambivalent sexual contexts. Thus for example the female lips parted in expectation for a green bottle filled with some fizzy drink. The bottle emits excessive grey vapor indicating the coolness of the drink and the gases it releases. On the bottle is written, in miniscule white letters: "Soft drink market," followed by a slogan typeset in large yellow font: "Each sucking = Gold." Apparently the text is about the connection between drinking soft drinks and the profits made by their producers. However the manifest and transparent sexual connotations of the word 'sucking' make it hard to 'swallow' the innocent message on face value; especially given the accompanying visual image.

Zen Buddhist sages were well aware of the mechanism of veiled stimulation and inducement and depicted it in graphic language: a sense may start reacting to some stimulus, but will not be captured by it unless the brain activates seductive images of the source of stimulation. To combust, a flame needs both kindling and air. Likewise, the flame of passion is born of a synthesis of sensual stimulus and images. On the one hand, people are captured by a sensual stimulus supplemented with relevant images, and on the other hand, once they see it for what it is they break free of its spell. The sight of the same object may attract one person, repulse another, and leave indifferent yet another one. The seductive agent is not therefore, in and for itself, the decisive reason for one's proneness to be, or not to be, seduced. The presence of images or the lack thereof, determines whether or not an emotional involvement is created. In other words, the saying 'there are no obscenities, only obscene thoughts' is irrelevant and likewise the assertion that all is in the mind or eye of the beholder: someone has implanted there stimuli for 'dirty' thoughts!

Moreover, advertising campaigns knowingly develop visual images fraught with hidden messages and disseminate them over the years. The gradual accumulation of these images eventually valorizes these hidden messages. Simply put, it is a question not only of a selling technique, but also of creating addiction. The reason for that is rather simple: the impact of the initial stimulus wears off very soon and thus a new and more intense one is needed, and so on and so forth.


A Sort of Foreplay

If we were to divide subliminal sexual stimuli embedded in advertising, we would find the following categories:

  1. Body-less eroticism: the presence of either a human body or sexual acts is not a prerequisite for creating sensual atmosphere. For example, a magazine ad for Capri soap shows a photo of an elegant sofa and a furry carpet strewn with the dress, sandals, purse and string of pearls of an absent woman. The slogan says: "Once you use Capri – you'll forego all the rest." An additional, ambiguous text explains why she took off her cloth – to soak in a bath and lather herself with a wonderful soap. This eroticized text alludes to a different kind of fondling and pleasure in the company of 'someone' whose name or nickname is Capri.

Other examples: Kitan Textile Industries introduced a new line of luxurious bed linen with the caption, "From the first night, you'll feel good together." In an ad for laundry detergent, a men's sweater is seen hung with clothespins over a box of Textil Shampoo – a washing powder for delicate fabrics. On the sweater is written in feminine handwriting: "It charmed my pants off." This wordplay implies a connection between love (sex) and laundry.

  1. Insinuated sex: an ambiguous tongue-in-cheek image that insinuates sex. For instance, in an ad of Levi Strauss jeans, a couple dressed in jeans and blue shirts is seen watching the sun setting into the sea. The orange sun is represented as the jeans button. The girl's hand extends towards her partner's buttocks as they enjoy their relaxed romantic moment under Levi's 'Sun of the Nations.' In a magazine ad for Parker pens, a geisha is holding a fan made of an assortment of the company's pens. The combination of prestigious pens, Japanese art print, and the stylized figure of a geisha brings together into one wholeness quality, art, exoticism and implied sex.
  2.  Alluring sex: overt, obvious, enticing and inviting sexy images, namely – what you see is what you see. For example, the PETA anti-fur ad in which Kim Basinger lies stark naked hiding her private parts and looking straight at the viewer. The text which serves her as a mattress of sorts says: "Beauty is not about wearing someone else's coat." The beauty and sexuality of the actress shown in the blue and black ad are supposed to convince us that the skin of a 'naked ape' is nicer to touch than mink or fox fur.

In another ad, a naked model is standing on one leg, as she puts on her Ronald Sassoon Jeans one leg at a time. The accompanying slogan reads: "Nothing but my jeans…" Namely, she prefers going commando since "the first thing you put on is the last thing you take off," as a notorious ad for women underwear informs us.

A Delta ad for women underwear recreates the famous skirt-blowing scene in Marilyn Monroe's film The Seven Year Itch. And indeed the Monroe look-alike model shows us her 'delta,' as if to justify the accompanying slogan: "Look at my underwear." A black and white series of ads for Edison razor blades shows heterosexual love-making scenes. The captions beneath the photos – "we used to think that women don't enjoy it," "it takes more than one to notice the difference," etc. – are designed to raise a twofold association: on the one hand, to point to the difference between the promoted product and its competitors; and on the other hand, to allude to the similarity between clean shave and clean sex. Who says that shaving cannot give one an orgasm?

  1. Bondage: descriptions or images implying or representing sadomasochistic or non-consensual sex. Sometimes, an ad quotes a scene from a thriller/horror film, or hard-core porn film. For example, the black and white photo in an ad for Rav Bariach security doors shows a terrified wet-haired model, her mouth opened in a mute cry, as she tries to hide her breasts with her arm. The text above her head explains-warns: "Imagine you took a shower, and an intruder broke into your home!" The advertiser appropriates Hitchcock's shower scene from Psycho to convince his potential client to close herself behind a Rav Bariach door.

Other ads set in a bathroom are less ominous. One such ad, for Ein Gedi bath salts, tells you to "check with whom you are having a bath…" Another one, in which a shadow of a man is seen approaching a female model that dries herself with Rosen towel, promises "a caress all over the body."

A considerable part of the ads for women's and men's leatherwear is associated with scenes of humiliation and with the sadomasochist jargon. Women's underwear is also an 'intimate story' as promised by the title of the six photo pages that introduced a new underwear collection in Israeli magazine Monitin. The photographs establish a link between the lacy underwear and the iron mesh the models are hanging on to. A man with iron cutter liberates the arrested/aroused models. The acts of ripping open the mesh, conquering the target and breaking the hymen locked behind a black chastity belt lead the viewer into the darker realms of the imagination.

5.   What a sexy holocaust! Ads with basic, primeval horror scenes featuring creatures such as demons and ghosts, vampires, hybrids and imaginary perverted, in both senses of the word, beings, or depictions and references to the Holocaust and its atrocities.

Imaginary-demonic worlds, as it turns out, are endowed with enormous suggestive power. Watching horror movies generates fear and suspense, which in turn produce pleasurable excitement in their spectators. In Western tradition death is sometimes defined as the ultimate orgasmic experience. And death, beauty, sex and religiosity are often combined into one cluster both in Western and Eastern theological descriptions.

Depictions of variegated sexual activity represent spiritual aspects in Hindu mythology, and Jesus Christ's death on the cross also has sexual connotations. And as yet we have not said a single word about depictions of hell in art: one is consumed there by the fire of exhilarating sexual passions (see under: Hieronymus Bosch). Atrocities are rather photogenic and can provide a nice backdrop to advertising. Benetton exploits human suffering in its advertising campaigns, and some Israeli and international shoe manufacturers promote their products using fetishist references and sexual torture of models after the style of Frankenstein & Sons…

Images that bring to mind Holocaust atrocities push to the extreme the use of sex in advertising. One such example is a six-page advertisement for women's underwear, published in Monitin during the 1980s. Under the title "A Locomotive Breathes down Your Neck," two models presented the new underwear collection in 'environments' characterized by their high anxiety coefficient. A closer look at the components of the ad reveals a series of Holocaust-related references: a freight car like the ones in which Jews were transported to concentration camps; two women in black underwear slaving at their tortuous work by a smoky furnace; a woman lying on a haystack with her dress pushed back, before or after a rape, on the background of a train wagon hiding all but the legs of a man that lurks behind it; two women stand embarrassed in the middle of a torture chamber filled with paraphernalia that bring to mind gallows, gas, shower, interrogation lamp, or fence of a concentration camp, a wall of clay bricks and locking mechanism of a crematorium, etc. This photographic fantasy is but one example of manipulative, emotional abuse of themes that have nothing to do with underpants, bras, sausages, and so on.

When Harry met Sally, she demonstrated to him how easily women can fake an orgasm; they just have to simulate ecstatic groans, moans, grunts, facial expressions and pelvic movements. Advertisers are all too familiar with this recipe, and repeatedly have their models fake orgasms while gorging on ice-creams, chocolates, beverages, and whatnot. And similarly to porn films, all we are left with is a feeling of tedious mechanical replication.

Advertising, like the cinematic world, is first and foremost a realm of fantasy and illusion so well crafted that we tend to perceive them as genuine, real and worthy of imitation. We therefore must not forget that the luscious model is nothing but a bunch of pixels in the printed ad, or televised commercial. One should remember that seeing is not always believing.

After watching contemporary commercials, one begins to miss the subtle, naïve eroticism of a sequence from one of the classic black and white films: a girl swaying on a swing in a park, her long hair blowing in the air and accidentally touching the hand of her bashful suitor. The erotic tension between the two is projected from the screen onto the spectator – the entire scene is in black and white, silent, implied, restrained, and the protagonists are fully dressed…

Something of this erotic spirit has rubbed off onto the commercial of Israeli fashion company Castro. The exhibitionist narrative is conveyed to us in all its complexity: enticing, human, mischievous. I'm mad about model Yael Abecassis's embarrassed smile a moment after the invisible exposure. After all, both in advertising and real life, eroticism and sex can only benefit when something is left to the imagination…


The Hebrew version of this article was first published in Mishkafayim 12, Jerusalem: the Israel Museum, May 1994, pp. 34-39.