Seven deadly sins. Seven dandy marketing tools.

Part 1: The big three: lust, gluttony, and greed.

The seven deadly sins are more than guidelines of behaviors to avoid. They're also very effective marketing communications tools.

In fact, before there was an official deadly sin list, one of them, lust, was the subject of the oldest advertisement still in existence. An ad for a bordello was uncovered on a sidewalk in Pompeii after more than sixteen centuries under ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

From that date – and probably long before – to the present, the seven deadly sins have played key roles in turning prospects into customers. Not surprising, since none of these peccadilloes would have made it to the top seven if they weren't really popular.

The deadly seven have gone through some changes in their climb to the all-star team of bad behavior. Four of them – lust, greed, anger and pride – appeared on Evagrius of Pontus' list of eight evil thoughts in the fourth century. In the sixth century Pope Gregory (the first one) cut the list to seven and made some substitutions. Extravagance replaced lust in the lineup, and gluttony, sloth and envy joined the team. Eventually, lust won its place back from extravagance, and the big seven were firmly established for more than a millennium – and still counting.

This week's article looks at the first three sins and some of their appearances in advertising:

Lust: Lust is, of course, used to sell lust-related products. It was a prominent feature of Victoria's Secret TV commercials. Though it does seem a little odd that the spots seem designed to kindle lust in men, while women are the brand's principal purchasers.

Any number of jeans spots seem to base their appeal on lust. The then teenaged Brooke Shields' line "Want to know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing," in a Calvin Klein jeans commercial caused a minor scandal in 1981.
Donna Rice caused some buzz as spokesperson for No Excuses jeans from 1984 to 1988. (Remember the photo of Ms. Rice and Gary Hart on the good ship Monkey Business that sunk the senator's run for the presidential nomination?) Marla Maples followed Ms. Rice, and the titillation trend has continued unabated ever since. There was a recent flurry of salacious tongue-wagging over the Bartle Bogle Hegarty commercial for Levi's 501 jeans that was edited two ways, one for straight and one for gay male audiences. The guy gets the girl – or the other guy – because he wears snug-fitting Levi's.

Presumable the only purpose of aftershave and men's cologne is to trigger an immediate sexual encounter. The Black spot now airing is a throwback to the '60s in its "Splash on some of this and get lucky immediately," appeal. There may just be a legal requirement that aftershave and men's cologne commercials must center on prurient interest. At any rate we've never seen one that didn't.

But lust doesn't have to be a product benefit to be part of a commercial. The Paris Hilton "Carwash" spot for Carl's Jr. approached (some say arrived at) soft porn to sell hamburgers.
A spot featuring two early-adolescent boys ogling – the audience assumed – Cindy Crawford was a blockbuster for Pepsi. It was, of course, Pepsi's new can which had captured the boys' attention.

And, of course there's a whole genre of beer commercials – from the Old Milwaukee Swedish Bikini Team to Miller Lite's "Catfight" spot – built on the premise that an association, no matter how tenuous, with babes will sell suds.

The Michelin calendar's "tasteful" eroticism (if they're top photographers, supermodels and arty shots it can't just be dirty pictures, right?) is almost as closely associated with the brand as the travel guides and the Michelin Man. And what trade pub would be complete without at least one ad for a multi-ton piece of industrial equipment with a completely gratuitous – and less than completely clad – hottie standing in front of the machine?

Gluttony: Subway seems to be selling against their basic weight loss position with their "Five-dollar foot-long" campaign. Perhaps the spots are in response to the Quiznos campaign comparing the humongous pile of meat on their sandwiches to Subway's more modest (saner?) portions. From "It takes two hands to handle a Whopper" to IHOP's "Come hungry, leave happy," Pizza Hut's Pizzone offering "over one pound of pizza goodness" and the classic Dancer Fitzgerald Sample spot for Wendy's in which Carla Peller asked "Where's the beef?" (Watch the spot.), fast food advertising seems to focus on gargantuan servings. It's as if the Albert Finney/Diane Cilento eating scene from "Tom Jones" is being replayed in America's living rooms every night.

Our favorite use of gluttony in a commercial was as a spot for an antidote to the aftereffects of pigging out. Doyle Dane Bernbach's famous 1972 spot for Alka-Seltzer, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" was a beautifully-conceived and produced piece of television art. BBDO's 2006 remake with Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts (playing their characters from "Everybody Loves Raymond") was also an artistic triumph. Unfortunately, neither the original nor the remake matched the performance of the animated Speedy Alka-Seltzer character.

Greed: Half the ads in The Wall Street Journal focus squarely and unabashedly on greed. Makes sense for companies marketing financial services. After all, one of their most powerful potential appeals is maximized – or at least increased – return. And as recent events in the credit market have proven conclusively, Gordon Gekko was not so much a fictional character as a composite of Wall Street mover-and-shaker types. His maxim "Greed is good," definitely applies to marketing communications.

A BrainPosse principal used greed effectively in a magazine campaign for trust services. The target audience was successful mid-career professionals who were still in the process of accumulating wealth. The premise was that these fledging rich folk were too busy making money to have the time to manage it for maximum return. The approach was a light, sophisticated take on greed. The headline was direct, but the visual was a New Yorker style cartoon illustrating the point in a tongue-in-cheek way. The campaign met its first year's response objective in just three months. Sales aids we developed helped the bank close 80% of prospects. Overall, the campaign quadrupled the program's target goals. Yep, as Gekko said, "Greed is good."

We're not advocating the seven deadly sins as lifestyle choices. But even a marketer who practices the Seven Virtues which are the sins' opposite numbers (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience and humility) would be derelict to ignore the persuasive power of seven of humanity's favorite foibles.


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