Review: Cabaret of dangerous ideas – What does sex sell?

There are definite advantages to living near Edinburgh and working in the city, one of them being an overload of culture or what passes for it during August. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is eclectic and bold, pushing just about every type of boundary you can imagine.I haven’t quite got over meeting walking genitalia on George IV Bridge a few years ago.

The Fringe kicked off yesterday and I took in my first show which was part of the annual Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas series. Twice a day until 26th August, academics will present an idea and lead a discussion about it.

Last night’s show was all about advertising and the use of sex to sell products.

Sexy’ themes have been used in advertising for decades, based on the notion that ‘sex sells’. From yoghurt ads to shampoo, from perfume to fast food – these ads are ubiquitous and pasted in mainstream media. Researcher Kat Rezai (Edinburgh Napier University) broadens this debate to ask: what do ‘sexy’ ads really sell? Does it sell that ‘sexy’ product, or does it sell specific behaviours?

Kat Rezai took us through some beautifully improvised re-enactments of famous adverts which are designed to show men in powerful roles and women in passive roles. They ranged from the humorous to the tacky to the downright disturbing, with fashion labels like Dolce and Gabanna’s controversial depictions of violence against women.

It was an enjoyable hour, but, if I’m honest, it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know already, but then I am interested in this stuff. I was hoping it might advance my knowledge a bit more of how this stuff works in the digital age. When I was growing up, there was one telly and you all watched the same adverts at the same time. Not any more. You can have all the members of a household watching completely different tailored ads base on their Google searches.

We know from all that’s come out about political advertising is that social media has provided a tool for some very questionable material designed to heighten prejudice in voting behaviour. The Trump and Leave campaigns targeted some pretty awful stuff at people they thought might be receptive which clearly had an impact on voting behaviour. I wondered if there was any evidence that the more disturbingly misogynist adverts were being targeted at people who had expressed misogynist views and was that making their behaviour and attitudes worse. That is an area that needs to be investigated more, I think.

So by igniting a burning desire to discover more about this, Kat did her job very well.

Of course no feminist  idea can be discussed without some man in the audience  doing a “what about the men?” I think Kat could have afforded to be a bit less polite in dealing with him but she didn’t do a bad job.

Future shows look at varied ideas such as All News is Fake News, Privacy is Dead, the Politics of the Tooth Fairy and Yes all Men, a show about consent and entitlement. The full list is here and you can get tickets here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • Some interesting ideas – thanks.

    I think people realise to a large extent what advertising is and deconstruct it – exaggeration, fantasy, attention grabbers for a 30 second slot etc. I have never felt the need to copy the “behaviour” of performing death-defying stunts to deliver a box of Milk Tray to someone – but perhaps that is where I have gone wrong all these years!

    On targeting. There has always been targeting. Direct mail. A teenager is not going to read the the same newspapers and magazines as a senior. Even in TV, by the ’80s and ’90s many households were getting second sets. With teenagers watching different programmes to their parents. The demographics of a daytime ITV viewer where very different from a late night channel four viewer.

    Of course as a Liberal I would like to see the banning of all illiberal ideas, all Conservative and Labour propaganda – let there only be nice Liberal propaganda! I have though greater faith in my fellow citizens and a battle of ideas and for them over time to make the right decisions. No one creed or political philosophy has a monopoly on the correct ideas and all political philosophies have something to contribute – and I mean all.

    All methods of greater and easier distribution of ideas has been seen as seditious and dangerous by the establishment and the political class. The printing press. The first London penny post in the 1600s was spreading sedition. Novels in the 1800s was seen as filling impressionable people with dangerous ideas. Daily newspapers. The verbatim verbatim reporting of Parliament – banned for a long time. Gilray’s satirical paintings. Penny dreadfuls. Reporting on a subject was banned by the BBC if it was within two weeks of it been debated in Parliament. The upstart ITN with interviewers like Robin Day asking impertinent questions of ministers – not “just have you anything you would like to tell our viewers, Prime Minister.”

    Throughout this, I would venture my fellow Liberal Democrats, Liberalism and Democracy has flourish because these are the very things that make Liberalism and Democracy flourish – the exchange of ideas, information and argument. As does social media and the internet today.

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