Many years ago I attended a presentation by a futurologist. In identifying differences between the generations, he compared the typical first sexual experiences of generations gone by (on their wedding night) to those of Generation Y (under their parents’ roof).

This insight about shifting attitudes toward sex came back to me when I was thinking about the many ways in which emerging markets differ from one another. Generally, the perception is that emerging markets are quite conservative when it comes to sexual imagery.

But the old advertising adage of “sex sells” remains true pretty much anywhere in the world. You just have to get the message right – for both your audience and your brand.

Overtly sexual

In some emerging markets, you can be a lot more direct in your appeal to sex than in many industrialized countries. I remember the market research manager of a Central American airline telling me that the way he got good response rates for his inflight surveys was to have pretty girls in short skirts hand them out.

Depending on whether your Internet filters let you, check out Russian airline Avia Nova’s recent commercial. As a female business traveller, I hate the ad. But it knows its target audience (most business travellers in Russia are likely to be men and, shall we say, not necessarily worried about political correctness) and it certainly has a clear message that differentiates the airline from its competitors (albeit one that the crew may not wish to live up to).

There is no more vivid example of the overt approach than using Paris Hilton to sell beer to Brazilians. In this television commercial for Devassa, Hilton cools herself with an ice cold can in full view of a crowded street, and appears to enjoy the experience almost as much as her horde of onlookers.

Marketers in Africa can get away with a surprisingly overt approach to sex as well, providing certain sensitivities towards STIs and the more repressed role of women are observed. This little gem for condom manufacturer Trust went viral a couple of years ago now, with a cheeky but highly sexual approach.

Subtly sexual

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In contrast, China is a more traditional culture where talking about sex overtly is usually considered to be in poor taste. But using innuendo and relying on the audience to connect the dots can be a very engaging strategy. McDonald’s, for example, pushed the boundaries with their Feel the Beef campaign, created to introduce their Quarter Pounders to the Chinese palate. And they got away with it.

Knowing how far a brand can go comes down to understanding the unique histories and nuances of a place. At first glance, India might seem like a highly socially conservative market. But India’s tradition of sensuality (think Tantra) means that it is possible to make sexy ads that are culturally referenced and don’t upset the censors.

Many brands in India are testing the waters, including Wild Stone deodorant with its ad featuring a married woman fantasizing about a handsome stranger. While a direct approach to sex may be taboo in India, fantasy and innuendo fit within cultural norms and beliefs.

Another idiosyncrasy to note is that the same rules don’t always apply to ads from other places as they do to ads from the homeland. For instance, an Indian businessman might want to fly with Avia Nova after seeing the Russian airline’s ad, but doesn’t necessarily want an ad for an Indian airline to look like that.

Similarly, tourism ads can’t look like they promote the country as a sex tourism destination. The perception has to be that it’s all about fantasy (even if it isn’t).

So what’s the takeaway? While sex may sell everywhere, it sells differently depending on where you are in the world. But the real story is still “same, same but different,” because the motivation underneath it all remains universal.