Sex & Moderation – Where Did The Red Line Go?

by Thomas MORADPOUR on January 19, 2011 · 14 comments

Tonight I’m staying in the Gansevoort Hotel in New York for a business meeting. My room is very nice. On the walls hang a series of photographs by Deborah Anderson; also, there is a beautiful coffee table book from the same photographer, Room 23. Mostly very suggestive semi-nude female portraits. Great work, but a far cry from the artwork you find at your friendly neighborhood Marriott.

So let’s call this an “R” rated hotel room – nothing wrong with it, as far as I’m concerned.

But this got me into thinking – my standards are mine, and I’m pretty liberal. How about other clients of the hotel, some of them participants to the same meeting I’m in, coming from other parts of the world, other cultures, with different standards? Hardly unexpected patrons in a NY hotel.
Are Gansevoort crossing the red line with them?

I know what you are thinking – fancy edgy hotel in Manhattan, you should know what to expect. True. Businesses and brands working at the fringes, at the edges, have always played with the red lines – those invisible boundaries separating what is commonly accepted versus what gets frowned upon, or deemed plain offensive.

And over time, it’s also from the edges that the red line moves. At least that’s how it used to work.
But I think this has changed dramatically; now, the line is (a) moving much faster than we can keep track of, and (b) it’s actually moving from within the mainstream, not from the edges.
And that changes quite a lot of things.


Lady Gaga. While celebrated as a leading edge pop icon and one of the most influential artists on the planet, the level of awareness and exposure she has reached places her right in the center of the stream, not the edge. She is as mainstream as it gets today – or rather, mainstream has become her. You’ll remember the intro to her video “Telephone” where prison guards strip-search her, only to conclude “I told you she didn’t have a dick  (too bad)”. All explicit and graphic, right in a video that was watched over 100 million times on YouTube alone (how about that for mainstream?).

Akon. Not exactly risque, right? Still, no issue joining SNL’s sensations The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) in their December hit single and video “I Just Had Sex”. Hilarious stuff, although playing it on speakers in the office would be ill advised; perhaps not as much as their previous hits “Jizzed in My Pants” and “Dick in a Box”, but still. What’s special about it, is how good the song actually is, and how perfectly normal Akon behaves as his usual rapping self, key moves included. 40 odd million views and still top 50 on US iTunes, 2 months later. Yep’, mainstream.

Durex at Duane Reade. Great upgrades these last few months, in the otherwise very mainstream Duane Reade New York stores. Now, on top of your usual prescription drugs, you can get all sorts of organic foods, sleek toiletries, and sex toys. Not a typo. You read sex toys. Right there, between shampoos and diapers, in a large condom isle, you can find flavored lubes and gels, vibrators and rings from the Durex Play line. All in bright orange and pink packs placed strategically at eye level. Sex toys have hit the mainstream.

Axe. The Unilever young-male-targeted supermarket toiletry brand has now built a solid reputation of equating its body sprays and shower gels with irresistible seduction. “You’ll get the girl” is their brand promise, and boy do they project it without apology! There’s dozens of great examples from the brand, but take a look at this recent one for the “Axe Detailer”, and tell me if you notice the red line – it’s called “clean your balls” and answers a very important question: “how can guys clean their balls so that they’re more enjoyable to play with”. Yes, you read that right.


Yes, to a large extent, crossing and pushing red lines is still done to drive controversy and buzz… but not always. The Gansevoort artwork choice is an artistic and design choice, while Duane Reade’s inventory just makes good business sense.

So how do you know what is acceptable and what is not? In a world where a few iconic brands and culture leaders are pushing the red line faster than you can update any internal policy, how do you know where to draw your own boundaries, and avoid being left too far behind?

What happens when the mainstream becomes more forgiving that you are, about stepping over that red line?


The question is relevant to me today as I’m starting work on the moderation policy of a new Pepsi website about to launch in multiple International markets. Defining what can be accepted, rejected, and what is “grey area”, is no easy jobs these days. To an extent, community self-policing will help. But it may not work if the majority is ahead of minorities in accepting risque material… as in the four examples above.

  • It needs to take into account the cultural gap that divides countries such as Russia (where it looks like almost every piece of advertising has to feature half-naked women) and Saudi Arabia (where even shoulder skin cannot be exposed).
  • Even within a single country and culture, appealing to a core target audience may offend a secondary target that still matters to you. Any business where brand prescriptor (e.g. youth) and brand buyer (e.g. moms) are different people, will know what I mean.
  • Finally, let’s not forget non-consumer strategic considerations such as key customers, or shareholders, who may have a much tighter red line. Lucky the few who can chose to ignore this.

If you’re still with me, the bad news is I don’t have a “solve-it-all” answer (but will gladly take tips!).


  • With clear knowledge of what the brand stands for; risque can work as a buzz creation tactic; but if it doesn’t fit what the brand stands for, it has no place in what the brand does or says.
  • With ownership of our platform; our platform, our house, our rules… wherever the line is set is our call to make, with our moral compass… not anyone else’s.
  • With cultural awareness and flexibility; different cultures, different norms… but remember it’s the world wide web.
  • With openness and trust; consumers and fans who want to engage may have different standards, so it’s a good idea to be a bit more liberal than we would be ourselves – we’ll assume positive intent.
  • With transparency; we’ll explain our rules in plain English, for all to see – guess what: people do understand, if you explain.
  • finally, With the courage to know there will be mistakes; no policy is perfect, a few things will be posted that we should have taken out, some complaints will come – we know it, we’ll deal with it.

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  • Carol L. Weinfeld

    Agreed. The policy must fit the brand and take into consideration cultural mores. Transparency is very important. In addition, one can’t please everyone. One can only do one’s best.


    • Anonymous

      +1000 on your last point, Carol!

      • Carol L. Weinfeld

        Thank you very much.

  • Alexander Nikolov

    As the world gets more and more global and people move around (like you and me) it is becoming difficult to generalize consumer preferences by country. I might be Bulgarian (similar to Russian tastes in general) but I find it offensive when I see ads with half-naked women. They do absolutely nothing for me and I actually happen to avoid the brands that use such. I hope that as we search for familiar brands wherever we go, brands would look the same and talk the same. Isn’t there such a thing as globalization trend in marketing? Or are we such a minority that we’re not worth the effort?

    • Anonymous

      Agree. This is where you start to hit the limits of blanket global work (which in all fairness tends to disappear in favor of hybrid “global scale ideas and properties + locally relevant executions” models. Thanks for coming and supporting my blog Alex!

  • Karen E. Lund

    Good grief! I’ve missed most of those, for which I am grateful. (Owing to my fair-skinned ancestors I blush easily.)

    Several weeks ago I received an advertisement in the mail. Glossy postcard with a photo of a seductively-posed young woman. At first glance I assumed it must be for a “massage parlor” (with benefits). Well, I thought, they must have just sent them to the whole neighborhood. I mean, what’s a middle-aged heterosexual woman like me going to need this for? Into the recycling bag.

    A couple of weeks later another one arrived (it’s up to three or four now). Same tousled hair, same glossy pout, same lack of clothing around her shoulders, which is all that’s visible. Again? I took a closer look. It’s for a hair salon. Oh! They don’t want me to hire a prostitute; they want to make me up to look like one. Still I pass…

    BTW, I love Carol’s comment. While I agree that corporate transparency is important, I sometimes wish the models would cover up a little more.

    • Alexander Nikolov

      Seriously, what were they thinking?

  • Fred McClimans

    Tom – You never cease to surprise me, and this post is a great example (in all the right ways). Mainstream has indeed been redefined within our society (or at least portions of it), but certainly not on a global scale. Unfortunately, you cannot control the viral spread of any advertising program – no matter what you put out there, it will make its way online in some form, thus the need to think globally when you act locally.

    In your example, you used sex as the key point (after all, in our culture sex can sell just about anything), but there are also many other Red Lines involving cultural or religious beliefs of which we all have to be aware.

    Was the hotel pushing the limits in your example above? Probably not for their main clientele. As for those from other areas/cultures, my experience is that people from other regions who visit NYC tend to know what to expect. For a local/regional hotel, that is not a big issue. But for a major international brand, it can become a significant issue.

    I don’t think that there is any grand unified theory or equation that can tell you how to create the perfect “acceptable to all” ad campaign that has the right balance of sexual/cultural/religious undertones – and if there was, it would probably be too bland to sell anything.

    On the positive side, while sex does sell, there are many other ways to sell as well, and the web has given us a whole new universe of marketing options where the user can delve deeper into the areas where they are comfortable. Start broad, and let the consumer drill down into the marketing message that resonates with them (after all, I don’t think my grandmother is hitting banned viral Sprite videos on YouTube – at least I hope not!).

    Thx for a great post.


  • Sergeyt_web

    liked your post – made me think. my key criteria to approach this would be (in addition to your great list):
    1) It has to have purpose – not just attention grabber/shock value
    2) having your target audience in mind /if this fits with brand and THEIR values this is fine – can’t please all

    thank you for enjoyable reading

    • Anonymous

      Hey mate! Thanks for the builds!
      Let’s catch-up soon

  • Katherine M. Gordon

    Tom, I love that you are inspiring this dialogue. I just wrote about the new ad campaign from The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas which is edgy but saves itself with a brilliant tagline: “Just the Right Amount of Wrong.” Giving consumers something slightly — not overtly — edgy to respond to lets them dial it up or down based upon their preferences. And if you’re targeting women, who control 80% of consumer spending, it’s smart business to toe this line carefully.

  • Suzanne Vara


    Great article. Living in Vegas, I have probably seen it all. Sex sells. Our shows on the Strip have that sexual elements in them, the advertising has to portray that to bring people in. There is a certain fascination that people have with sex that is a bit perplexing. It is a part of life and relationships but when we see it outside of our own lives it is sensational, alluring and grabs our attention with such fervor that we cannot get enough of it. This is why it sells and has a place in advertising. The older generations are on on board so much as there is that aspect of sex stays in the bedroom/privacy however with the younger generations they grew up with this. They see it on tv through shows and commercials. Sex to them is not this taboo please sensor as it used to be.

    I, like you, do not have an answer here. I think what the brand stands for is crucial as if we buy into what they tell us they stand for then we are on board with how they are marketing to us. We know what to expect and make the decision to accept that.


  • Metta_all

    Thomas – I wonder whether your experience was simply a matter of being given one of the hotel’s rooms intended for “Mr & Mrs G” or similar: I suspect that was the case and the assignment of this room to you was simply a faux pas by the hotel.

    The hotel has 187 rooms and a perusal of the website reservations options, etc., shows that the hotel acknowledges Mr & Mrs G might have children in tow. I highly doubt every room is decked out with the same Deborah Anderson artwork!

    It’s unfortunate you didn’t inquire about this with the hotel front desk. If I had been assigned the same room I would have expressed my regrets that my own lovely Mrs G was not going to be joining me and so I was curious about the decor of the room. It may have yielded sharing a laugh with the front desk representative and turned into a very interesting targeted marketing discussion with a hotel executive.

    As much very good insight as this blog post offers on sex in marketing, I think you may have jumped to conclusions with the hotel. I hope your blog post does not unwittingly unleash a fury of stupid rage from hostile holy rollers aching for a fight (I just read some Baptist grand poo-bah has just forbidden his followers from yoga classes!)

    Have you tried to touch base with hotel management? Again I really think a discussion on targeted marketing (newlyweds, couple’s getaway, etc.) with hotel execs is what the content of this post really should have been about. Cheers!

  • Arno

    Another great article! Marketing is not my forte but your comments reminded me of Cullen Murphy’s book “Are we Rome?” that makes a parallel between how Rome was on the edge of decadence before its fall and the exuberance of our current society at different levels including the use of sex for commercial purposes.
    I don’t know how far one can ride this wave, and I guess we are already overstretched, but maybe now is a good time to play contrarian and communicate on more sober, family-oriented values. If we are indeed Rome, maybe it is time to prepare the next era…
    Just my two cents…

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