January 7, 2014

Media Analysis of the K-Y ‘Intense’ ad “Alex and Emma.” 

by SASC Outreach Volunteer

       Women are bombarded every day with dozens of advertisements ranging from the newest cosmetics to trendy clothing to feminine hygiene products, all of which allege that they can, and will, make women’s lives better in some way. Advertisements for products of the sexual variety are no different, with advertisements for personal lubricants of particular interest. Quite possibly the best known company for personal lubricants is the K-Y brand, a company which uses fresh and  funny advertising to claim that their product can improve the sexual pleasure of one or both of the participants. This blog explores the issues brought forward by one such ad for the product K-Y “Intense” with regards to the articles “Beyond the ‘Sexualisation of Culture’ Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks,’ Midriffs,’ and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising,” by Rosalind Gill as well as “In Search of (Better) Sexual Pleasure: Female Genital ‘Cosmetic’ Surgery,” by Virginia Braun.

            The ad campaign for K-Y brand ‘Intense’ features various couples sitting in bed describing how the product improved the sexual satisfaction of the female participants in a humorous but tasteful manner. The particular ad viewed for the purposes of this paper featured a lesbian couple, Alex and Emma, who begin by explaining how they keep their relationship strong. Alex proposes that it is through communication that they have managed to be together for so long, but Emma suggests that K-Y ‘Intense’ has helped them. Emma then goes on to explain what the product is supposed to do leading into a scene where, through images of fireworks, the two women achieve orgasm with assistance from the lubricant, presumably. At the end of the ad Alex announces that it was a “good purchase.”[i]

            This ad is particularly important due to its use of a lesbian couple in the ad campaign, which includes mostly heterosexual couples, to sell a product targeted toward women. The use of lesbians in advertising is not something new, as Rosalind Gill points out, but the way that the couple is used is rather atypical. The other reason that the ad is important is due to its main focus on improving women’s sexual pleasure and subsequent orgasm, reproducing a very common theme regarding women’s pleasure and ability to climax that is covered extensively by Virginia Braun. Despite containing these ideas regarding female pleasure, the ad is again irregular in its presentation.

            As mentioned, the use of lesbians in the K-Y ‘Intense’ ad ‘Alex and Emma’ is not out of the ordinary for an ad in general but is out of the ordinary in the way that they are presented to the audience. Rosalind Gill states in her article that in media such as this the lesbian pair would generally be presented as “extraordinarily attractive” with a “conventionally feminine appearance.”[ii] They would also be highly sexualized in way that is not granted to gay men.[iii] She goes on to say that many portrayals of ‘lesbian’ women in ads are typically done in a way that is “unthreatening to heterosexuality” through actions that the viewer may perceive as merely experimentation and not to be taken as a serious sexual orientation.[iv] Even their beautiful appearance looks like a process of erasure toward their queerness and repackages them within ‘normal’ modes of heterosexual attractiveness.[v]

            The K-Y ad, however, does not really fit with Gill’s general characterization of the ‘hot lesbian.’ While the two women are conventionally attractive, they are presented as more regular in appearance with no real over-sexualisation to speak of. They are dressed in baggy pyjamas with their hair loose and unstyled and they are wearing very little make-up. Even the image of their sexual encounter at the end is done in an under-sexualised way; the two women are shown holding hands fully clothed in front of images of fireworks before the scene cuts back to them in bed, still fully covered, obviously satisfied.

The focus of the ad is not on their sexiness or appealing to the male gaze but instead on Alex and Emma’s relationship and how the sexual aspect of that relationship is made better through the product, an issue which will be covered later in this paper. K-Y’s approach to the two women’s relationship is of particular importance as they are shown to the audience as a legitimate, loving couple who just happens to be of the same sex. Their discourse is no different from the other couples in the ‘Intense’ ad campaign, and they are even the only couple to start off the ad talking about how they have managed to stay together as long as they have as opposed to starting off with how well the product worked for them like the couples in the other ‘Intense’ ads. This reinforces Alex and Emma’s relationship as being on the same level as heterosexual couples despite being homosexual.[vi]

            If any complaints could be leveled against the ad based on Gill’s article, it would be for its use of two young, white, thin and, apparently, middle class women. This use of a particular kind of woman is pointed out by Gill as an exclusionary method commonly used in popular culture that, in a way, denotes that only certain kinds of women can enjoy particular forms of sexualisation.[vii] While K-Y unfortunately uses this form of exclusion in the ‘Alex and Emma’ ad, it may be worth noting that an Asian couple and a middle aged couple are used in the other two ads of the ‘Intense’ ad campaign.[viii] While they are all fairly good looking people and likely from the middle class, the fact that K-Y is using some diversity in its ads, and using said diversity in a way that is not entirely stereotypical or insulting, is a good step in the right direction for the world of advertising.

            The other important aspect to the ‘Alex and Emma’ ad is its focus on female sexual pleasure being enhanced through the use of the K-Y lubricant.  This idea of increasing sexual pleasure with the use of an aid is explored in Virginia Braun’s article where pleasure is used to legitimize female genital cosmetic surgery.[ix]  Braun states that the characterization of this kind of increased pleasure is usually only presented through “normative heterosexuality” and with the orgasm shown as “central to female pleasure,” while other forms of pleasure are “relegated to second place.&#x2
01d;[x] This strong focus on heterosexuality and the centrality of the female orgasm perpetuates two ideas according to Braun; first that sexual pleasure was primarily “derived through coitus” and, secondly, that a female orgasm is “something not all women necessarily (easily) achieve.”[xi]

            The ad unfortunately does parrot these ideas that women’s pleasure is located solely in orgasm through various statements like how the gel “stimulates arousal so that the big moment will feel like nothing we’ve ever felt before,” and that it is “scientifically proven to make that big moment feel even bigger.” This idea that women might need help in achieving orgasm is rooted not in their sexual practices but in their physical and psychological beings according to Braun.[xii] Women’s bodies are framed as problematic by the media, which leads self-conscious women to seek assistance, cosmetic surgery in Braun, to change parts of their bodies in order to keep them in line with the social norm put out by the same media that shamed them.[xiii] While what K-Y ‘Intense’ does is similar, in that it is placing the issue within women’s bodies, it is not quite the same especially in the sense that it is not telling women to change their physical body in any way.

        Despite the fact that the ‘Alex and Emma’ ad is continuing these ideas surrounding the female orgasm, the ad does not, obviously, perpetuate them through the means of heteronormativity.  Through the ‘Alex and Emma’ ad, K-Y brand is acknowledging that women can reach climax through a variety of ways that do not always include vaginal intercourse. This is another example of K-Y legitimizing the sexual relationships of homosexual couples.

        The K-Y brand ‘Intense’ ad ‘Alex and Emma’ is particularly unique due to its use of some common themes in popular culture, such as young, pretty lesbians and a woman’s right to reach orgasm, but does so in a way that is new, refreshing and legitimizing toward lesbian couples. Advertisements are rarely kind enough to acknowledge the actual existence of homosexual women, let alone treating their relationships as normal. So it is really surprising that an actually progressive and serious attitude toward queer sexual relationships would come from an ad put out by a company that is, in a way, selling sex as opposed to other companies who just use the sex appeal of lesbians to sell their products.

[i] Vanessa, “K-Y to Launch Commercial with Lesbian Couple,” Feministing, Last Modified September 1, 2011, http://feministing.com/2011/09/01/k-y-intense-to-launch-commercial-with-lesbian-couple/
BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Socks’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhRJ8ZsEJgw
BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Shocked’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWiVZMbOD1o
[ii] Rosalind Gill, “Beyond the ‘Sexualisation of Culture’ Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks,’ Midriffs,’ and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising,” Sexualities 12, no. 2 (2009): Pg 151.
[iii] Gill Pg 152.
[iv] Gill, Pg 153.
[v] Gill Pg 151.
[vi] BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Socks’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhRJ8ZsEJgw
BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Shocked’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWiVZMbOD1o
[vii] Gill Pg 154, 155.
[viii] BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Socks’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhRJ8ZsEJgw
BrandFreakOne, “K-Y Intense: ‘Shocked’,” Youtube, Last Modified April 14, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWiVZMbOD1o
[ix] Virginia Braun, “In Search of (Better) Sexual Pleasure: Female Genital ‘Cosmetic’ Surgery,” Sexualities 8, no. 4 (2005): Pg 412, 413.
[x] Braun, Pg 413-415.
[xi] Braun, Pg 418.
[xii] Braun, Pg 411, 416, 418.
[xiii] Braun, Pg 419.

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