If Sex Can’t Sell Beer, Why Is TV Still Hooked On It?

In 2003, Miller Brewing began a series of ads that got far more response than they expected. Titled “Cat Fight,” the spots featured a couple of impossibly breasted women ripping each other’s clothes off as they fought over conflicting positive traits of Miller Lite.

While every marketer hopes to make a memorable impression, in this case the impact was anything but positive. The commercial met with far ranging disdain from various religious and moral groups along with accusations of blatantly objectifying women from others in the advertising community.

Putting up with letters, calls and criticisms was injury enough, but the final insult came when Miller Brewing realized they had made marketing history: Sex wasn’t selling.

According to a June 4 2003 New York Times article, sales of the Miller Lite brand are slumping and the provocative campaign did nothing to improve the situation.

The same article quotes Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, saying the ads were “sensationalistic,” and simply “trying to get noticed.” His publication also observed that during the time “Cat Fight” was being aired, sales of the beer fell 19% in Texas, the product’s most popular state. Also sited is Bob Garfield, critic for Advertising Age, who summed it up this way… “Sex is not a substitute for a reason to buy a product.”

This lesson in ale economics suggests the public can be burned out with the constant viewing of wall-to-wall skin and sex. So, when will television network executives come to the same conclusion?

While the Miller Girls were doffing their clothes, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that revealed overall, the inclusion of sexual content in television programming had risen 64%. Even more concerning, 83% of programs aimed at teens had sexual themes.

Yet, in spite of the increased edginess of television content, F.C.C. enforcement bureau head David Solomon maintains that the number of complaints received by the agency has not increased from the usual rate of approximately 400 per year. (July 27 2003 New York Times)

Why then do so many people voice objections to a 30 second beer commercial, yet remain mute over the deluge of sex in the vast selection of television programming? The answer may be just a matter of math. According to the Concerned Women for America, the F.C.C. received 6,900 complaints over an airing of a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, but in the commission’s quarterly report the many comments were rolled into a single entry.

While that may be discouraging for those who responded, the only weapon we have to win this war is to continue the public response attack. Some F.C.C. commissioners hear the call, as evidenced by Michael J. Copps who pleaded with the Senate Commerce Committee for closer scrutiny of the hordes of “patently offensive” television programs and Kevin Martin who supports cleaning up content. You can add your voice by jotting down the specific name, date, time, and television station where you encounter a program you deem to be offensive. All the addresses you require are here: http://www.parentstv.org/ptc/fcc/main.asp

Scott Bussen, spokesman for Miller Brewing, implies that the negative attention the Miller commercials attracted is one of the reasons upcoming Miller campaigns will be focusing far less on sex and instead emphasizing the quality of the product (New York Times, July 31 2003).

Surely if beer companies can be persuaded by the moral conscience of this nation, those who regulate and operate our broadcast entities should feel a need to brew up a better plan for television programming.

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