By  on December 29, 2000

LONDON -- British outdoor advertising is undergoing a sex boom.

A string of advertisements over the last few months have stirred a storm of controversy and, in some cases, resulted in the companies having to pull the campaigns and rethink their strategies. The controversy comes as more and more lingerie, beauty and apparel firms focus a key part of their ad budgets on outdoor media, ranging from posters to the facades of buildings.

"We have seen phenomenal growth in the fashion and fragrance areas over the last few years," said Lindsay Farrar, a strategic planner at the outdoor advertising company More Group U.K., Ltd. "One of the reasons is the incredible clutter in glossy magazines now. People are using standard billboard campaigns but also are looking for unusual locations like the fronts of buildings."

The sexier edge to outdoor ads started seven years ago with the launch by Playtex of its Wonderbra line. The initial campaign raised eyebrows since it featured a bra-wearing Eva Herzigova staring down at her cleavage under the tagline "Hello Boys."

"At the time, Hello Boys was groundbreaking because it reinvigorated the outdoor media, which was dead in the water," Stephen Holbrook, marketing manager for Wonderbra, said. "It also brought lingerie out of the closet and made it fun."

Now the U.K. outdoor advertising market is worth about $865 million a year and is expected to grow by 18 percent this year to more than $1 billion. Growth is expected to slow next year to 4.5 percent for a total of $1.07 billion.

But the increasing use of outdoor venues for ads is creating ever more pressure on advertisers to stand out. While the companies contend they don't deliberately set out to shock, some observers claim they must in order to attract attention.

"It's an issue that raises its head from time to time and we seem to be having a string of them lately," a spokesman for the British Advertising Standards Authority said. "We get about 12,000 complaints a year and about 25 percent of those relate to ads that cause people offense."

One of the most complained-about ads to the A.S.A. this year is one by the Elida Faberge hair color brand Organics that shows a red-haired, bikini-clad woman peeking inside her bikini bottoms to confirm her real hair color. The tag line is "Keeps Your Hair Color So Long You'll Forget Your Natural One." The ad ran on billboards across the country and generated more than 210 complaints to the A.S.A., as well as some demonstrations against it in local communities. However, the authority decided to take no action against the campaign, ruling it was lighthearted and unlikely to cause serious offense.Gossard wasn't as lucky. Its $1.4 million poster campaign "Find Your G Spot" in October ran afoul of the A.S.A., which upheld the complaints by 37 consumers against it and ordered Gossard to take down two of the three images. The images, developed by Abbott Mead Vickers, all show a lingerie-strewn bedroom floor. One shows a model's arm with the tagline "If he's late you can always start without him," another depicts a bare-breasted model lying on a bed and the tagline "Bring him to his knees," and the third shows the backs of a couple in bed with the line "Moan, moan, moan." The first two images were the ones that had to be taken down.

The A.S.A. also ruled that Gossard must have all its future poster campaigns pre-approved by the authority for the next two years. Gossard is one of 14 companies that have to get such approval.

"It's very disappointing," Angela Masella, Gossard's marketing director, said. "The purpose of the campaign was to emulate the brand's values, which are fun, sexy fashion. People expect us to be bold and innovative. We thoroughly researched the ads beforehand and then showed all the images to focus groups and consumers found them refreshing. If hundreds of thousands of people had complained then we would have obviously rethought the idea. But there were only 37 complaints out of a U.K. population of 60 million."

At least Gossard isn't alone.

A poster of the nude Sophie Dahl for YSL's Opium has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority here, although most of the 500 posters put up have already been taken down because the campaign is winding down. The A.S.A. said it received 730 complaints about the poster -- the most about a single ad since 1995. YSL Beaute now faces the possibility that it will have to have its ads pre-approved by the A.S.A., although no decision has yet been made.

In addition, Pretty Polly's campaign for its Almost Naked line of lingerie has received more than 200 consumer complaints. The campaign, created by the agency TBWA and called "The Touchy Feely Undie," features photos of nude model Rachel Leigh caressing her rear-end. The taglines are "Go On Treat Yourself" and "Quick No One's Looking."Some industry executives express concern that brands might be pushing the envelope too far, with the potential danger that they end up alienating consumers rather than attracting them. Holbrook of Wonderbra said the key for any company using outdoor advertising is to determine its brand values and push those.

"Too many brands now think they have to shock to get attention and that can be counterproductive," he said. "One of the most successful things for Wonderbra is our tone, which is humorous and not about shocking people."

That's why Wonderbra has stuck with the advertising formula it created seven years ago. Its latest ads, for its new Variable Cleavage line, feature the bra-wearing model Adriana Karembeu and the tagline "I Pull the Strings." The line sold out at retail two weeks after its launch in early October, Holbrook claimed.

But there are those who contend the recent ad campaigns, even the most controversial ones, are simply a reflection of what's going on elsewhere in the world. Any British magazine rack is likely to display more cleavage and nakedness than is seen on a string of billboards, these executives contend.

"Outdoor is a fairly expensive medium and it demands the ads be eye-catching," said Rachel Law, the Organics account director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising in London. "Ads do seem to be more sexual today but they are in line with what is going on in all the other media -- television, editorial in magazines and so on. I wouldn't say advertising is out of sync."

A recent study by More Group claimed that outdoor was a vital media for apparel and beauty brands because it is seen by more than 80 percent of the key 15- to 24-year-old and 25- to 34-year-old age groups. More Group said 86 percent of target high-spending customers use their cars on a daily basis and 36 percent of the group in London drive to work daily.

"This typifies why outdoor, in using "dead" time, has become increasingly popular for targeting busy, upmarket and working adults," the report said.

Outdoor campaigns have been mounted regularly over the last few years by such firms as Gossard and Triumph International, which was one of the first brands to use a building facade as an advertising medium. Now such brands as Bulgari, French Connection and Nicole Farhi have adopted the practice on construction sites around London. More Group has moved to cater to the demand by creating 20 premier locations around London for oversized posters.Other fashion and beauty brands that rely heavily on outdoor media include CK Calvin Klein; Gap; Christian Dior; Estee Lauder; DKNY, which had a widespread campaign of bus shelter posters for the U.K. launch of its first women's fragrance this spring, and Tommy Hilfiger. The men's wear company Hackett, Isabella Rossellini's beauty brand Manifesto and Dolce & Gabbana all mounted outdoor campaigns in the last few months for the first time. Levi's used outdoor media extensively this spring for the launch of its Engineered Jeans line, promoting it on 8,300 roadside sites and 108 sites in shopping centers. About 80 percent of those consumers surveyed said they were aware of the line because of the campaign, according to a More study. Levi's repeated the campaign in August.

"Dominating the street furniture of most relevance to youths helped deliver our core objective of building instant product fame for Levi's Engineered Jeans amongst our target," said Peter Colvin, the regional business director of Starcom Motive Partnership Advertising Agency, in a statement.

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