Breast Advertising

Judging from modern marketing, it seems Mother Nature's sole intent for inventing the breast was advertising. Women's chests are used to sell everything from underwear to cologne, their sexually suggestive powers unparalleled among marketing tools. But what happens when one small clinic decides to use breasts to advertise their natural purpose, feeding babies? The idea is categorically rejected as "offensive." So goes the case of By Choice Midwifery. If you're unfamiliar with midwifery services, think of them as something akin to organic Planned Parenthoods. Their principal job is to assist mothers in natural births -- sans the drugs and high-priced equipment. Yet By Choice also offers assistance ranging from prenatal care to menopause counseling. This fall By Choice planned its coming out party. Partners Dana Ericson and Carey Ann Ryan had been in business three years. They wanted to market their services citywide. So they approached Universal Outdoor Advertising with a rather novel idea. They wanted to promote the value of breast feeding. And they wanted to use bare breasts to do it. It seemed logical to them. Contrary to popular belief, the function of breasts is not to induce ogling, but to provide nutrition. And who would argue against displaying one of Mother Nature's better designs? Apparently, quite a few. By Choice already had a campaign in store. Created by a Toronto ad agency, three of the ads showed a baby at mother's breast, accompanied by slogans like "Free hookup with every delivery," "This union offers security, no dues, and great benefits" and "Sometimes it's okay to suck up to the boss." The latter concept won a trophy at the London International Advertising Awards. Yet they hoped to commence the campaign with a more provocative message: a billboard showing naked breasts accompanied by the caption, "Fast food outlets. Two convenient locations." "They have such great appeal and they're so much about what we are," says Ericson. A salesman for Universal, which controls the lion's share of billboards in town, thought the idea kosher. Corporate HQ did not. The salesman told By Choice that his superior, Teri Wood, found the concepts "offensive." When the women at By Choice asked to meet with Wood, the salesman told them no; there was nothing further to discuss. Wood was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment. A spokesman at Universal's Chicago office did not return phone calls. The decision didn't make By Choice happy. How, they ask, can a natural function like breast feeding be construed as obscene? Especially when the industry passing judgment uses breasts to sell nearly everything else? "When you relegate a woman's breast to a sexual organ, we're missing the fact of what they're primarily there for," says Jean Douglas Smith, who works with By Choice. "It seems perfectly acceptable to show breasts as long as you don't show the business end."Grabbing attentionConservative skeptics might view By Choice as just another feminist group trying to shove their dogma down the public throat. Yet Ericson, Smith and Ryan seem anything but. By Choice's office could pass for a New England writer's loft. The refurbished carriage house is filled with classical music, posters and pamphlets promoting women's health. And the three women's articulate, measured words appear less the speech of sexual revolutionaries than of mothers with 13 children among them. They realize their ads are provocative. That's precisely the point. If you want to compete in the clutter of modern advertising, they assert, you need a strong message. The ads, commissioned by INFACT Canada, a breast feeding advocacy group, have caused stirs before. INFACT's Jean Samuel says they've been publicly displayed -- without tumult -- at transit stops in California and Ontario, Canada. But she also knows of adverse reactions. "There's been situations in hospitals where a nurse or doctor has been told to take them down. It's sad, really." But Peter Flynn Sr. can see why. The chairman of Flynn/Wright, a local ad agency whose major clients include Maytag, says the campaign is not only tawdry, it's simply bad advertising. He argues that the shock value precludes viewers from grasping the intended message. "I think it's in very poor taste," says Flynn. "Your private organs are supposed to conceive, but that doesn't mean you put them on billboards. A good advertisement doesn't need nudity to sell the product. It's lazy advertising." Vicki Harbert concurs. She and husband Bob run Harbert Creative, a small agency that handles marketing for such groups as Planned Parenthood. She believes that just because it's a natural function doesn't mean it merits public display. Harbert takes offense to breast feeding in public. And she certainly doesn't think it should be exhibited on billboards for young and old to see. "I don't think there's a place for nudity in advertising," she argues. Harbert believes By Choice could more powerfully -- and tastefully -- get its message across with something more "warm and fuzzy." All fuzzed outYet Samuel implies that Harbert's idea constitutes lazy advertising. "We sort of thought there were enough pretty, fuzzy, pink and blue posters of women breast feeding. They don't really make people think enough. We wanted to be provocative in order to get people's attention." Samuel apparently has one fan: Bob Harbert. "I personally think that's pretty funny, very creative," he says of the "fast food" ad. To Bob, the problem is not so much the ad, it's the moral compass of the midwest town where the ads ran into trouble. In-your-face advertising just doesn't play in the Heartland. "They would get a lot of flack. We live in the Bible Belt. People would just freak out. They're very easily offended." Whether one personally agrees or not, few media outlets are willing to take a few hundred dollars in ad revenue at the risk of offending other customers. Fox television has become a viable fourth network largely on its skill at taking risks to attract a young audience. But Ted Stephens, vice president/station manager of the local Fox affiliate would turn down the By Choice campaign as well. "We would get tons of calls," says Stephens, whose channel averages 30 calls a day. "The viewers are very proactive about telling us how smart or how stupid we run our station." A Canadian survey, however, suggests the advertising industry might be the timid one. Health providers displayed the ads at a mall in Saskatoon, a small city on the western Canadian plains. Like our Midwest, the region's not exactly a raving bastion of liberalism. Providers asked 438 passersby for their impressions on the ads -- 83 percent responded positively. Summed up 62-year-old Murray Cliff, who was quoted in Saskatoon's Star Phoenix newspaper: "There's nothing wrong with it. It's the beauty of motherhood."

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