What American Apparel’s Near-Pornographic Ads Can Teach You About Writing
I’m not a very classy person. I have, for example, a tendency to prefer cheap pizza to the fancy wood-oven-fired stuff with weird ingredients. Pine nuts and truffle oil? No thank you. I’d like fat with more fat on it, please. Things like that. But I draw the line at carrying my porn around in public.
You wouldn’t think it would come up that often, would you? This is the internet age, after all; those of us who like the naughty pix can just store them on the privacy of our own hard drives, or tweet them to the privacy of young women’s hard drives, where they will eventually be leaked to the press and cause a scandal that ends our political careers.
So even classless ol’ me shouldn’t usually have to worry about walking around publicly with porn in hand that often, right?
That’s not a page from Playboy. You could be easily fooled, since it features not only a scantily-clad woman but also a cute little bio and some URLs telling you where you can see more sexy pictures, but it’s actually an advertisement that ran on the back page of our local paper a few weeks ago.
These are very awkward things to carry around on public transit, just for an example. Little old ladies give you odd looks. Parents with small children scowl until you flip the page over. And in their defense, some of the back-page ads aren’t substantially different from a porno cover. Some of them are worse.
The woman in black is wearing quite a bit more clothing, and, I would argue, posing less provocatively as well. She does, I assume, wear less inside the magazine, but the point remains that I’m allowed to carry the daily news around with the American Apparel ad showing (give or take the occasional disapproving look), while taking a Playboy onto the subway would cause all sorts of trouble whether I opened it or not.
There is actually a writing-related point to the comparison, and it is this: packaging and branding matter more than content.
American Apparel can run pornographic ads in the mainstream press because they’re not billing it as pornography. The fact that it’s more physically titillating than a Playboy cover doesn’t bother people because Playboy is for jerkin’ off and full-page newspaper ads are just for selling clothes. The context trumps the content.
This can play out in a lot of ways. Just about any choice you can make about a work affects how people will read it: what genre it’s billed at, whether it’s “literary” or “popular” fiction; even just the difference between hardback and paperback carries expectations that you’ll never get away from. Don’t be afraid of the choices — but do be aware of them.
And don’t take your Playboy on the subway. That’s just classless.