CANNES, France—It's been a relatively sleepy Sunday here at the Cannes Lions festival, with most delegates just arriving or still on their way into town. But naturally there wasn't an empty seat in the Forum auditorium in the Palais this afternoon—thanks to the topic, "Sex: The Final Frontier," and its star panelist, Cindy Gallop.
And of course, the ex-advertising executive and pioneering founder of the social sex site Make Love Not Porn—where people upload their own videos of real sex, not pornorgraphy—had plenty to say about the state of intimacy: her own, the world's and the (anemic and mostly dishonest) version peddled by brands in their advertising.
The talk, hosted by Flamingo and also featuring filmmaker Mobeen Azhar, began with a discussion of generational attitudes toward sex, and whether circumstances inform them—such as the effect the pill had on boomers, or AIDS had on Generation X, or how Tinder is affecting millennials.
Gallop, though, said one thing binds all generations.
"I'm 56, I'm a boomer, and I date twentysomething men—so I'm cross-generational," the onetime BBH leader started out. "But based on eight years of working on Make Love Not Porn, and examining all this data—conversations, comments, emails—it doesn't matter what age we are, we are all rampantly insecure about sex. We are not open and honest about it as a society. We don't talk about it sufficiently. And so we all worry dreadfully. We all want to be good in bed, but we've got no idea what that even means."
Thus, her mission with Make Love Not Porn is to normalize sex for a culture that in many ways is terrified of it. And her 30-year ad career has made her keenly aware of how brands can help that process along.
Her first critique of advertising's view of sex? Almost all of it is through the male lens. "Our industry has not even begun to see the power of depicting sex through the female creative lens," she said. Most brands pretend sex doesn't even exist, and thus deny themselves a point of universal relatability with consumers, she added.
"Brands and products are spectacularly failing to acknowledge this universal area of human experience," Gallop said. "People have sex in cars. The automobile industry spectacularly fails to ever acknowledge that, or to allow that to influence product design. The mattress industry is failing to acknowledge that people have sex in bed! They're not allowing that to influence product design either. The kitchen industry is failing to acknowledge that people have sex on kitchen counters. Honestly, I could go on and on. Our universal experience of sex applies to many, many not obviously sexual products and brands."
As Gallop sees it, advertisers are just reinforcing the taboo.
"We have a duty to consumers," she said. "We help our consumers when we normalize and de-embarrass this area of massive insecurity. The advertising industry has a duty to actually understand, analyze, acknowledge—and design, and market to, and communicate around—sex for all consumers globally."
Of course, it's not quite that easy, as Gallop herself acknowledged.
"The brands that have done this will occasionally get a real backlash for having dared to go anywhere near the topic of sex," she admitted. "When Gerry Graf's agency, Barton F. Graf 9000, did a wonderful campaign for Ragù several years ago in the U.S., they had one execution that showed a kid coming home from school, walking into the bedroom and seeing his parents having sex—you never see them, you just see his face. I thought that was brilliant, but they experienced some real backlash."
Brands need to be brave, though, she added, and not overly worry about the reaction—because normalizing sex won't just help consumers get over their hangups, it will also be good in the end for advertisers' business.
"The biggest obstacle we face in building Make Love Not Porn is the social dynamic I call 'Fear of what other people will think,' " Gallop said. "We react to all of this in the way we think we should, because we're worried what other people think about it. Get over that. Fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life. You'll never own your future if you care what other people think. Encourage clients and brands to not worry about that. We do consumers a huge service when we normalize this whole area, and they will respond—and you will see that response in the business."
Almost every soliloquy from Gallop was met with rapturous applause from the audience. By the end, she had even connected with one audience member from an agency in Asia that works on Durex—which Gallop said has so far been a little wary of partnering with her.
She also had a few requests of the audience:
First: "The next client brief you work on, the next conversation you have with a client, let's talk about the consumer's sex life. Let's talk about their attitudes toward sex. Let's talk about their behaviors. Introduce it as a completely normal fact of life, literally, to every brand you work on. When we do that, we can come across profound areas of insight."
Second: "I want to see sex discussed much more at Cannes. I want to see the #realworldsex hashtag trending. Please tweet the fucking shit out of it. And talk about sex to everyone you meet for the rest of the week, because it's about time our industry started doing that."
Third, and most provocatively: "We would love all of your out there to be our new Make Love Not Porn stars. We want to publish a 'Make Cannes Love Not Porn' edition. So, please film the sex you're having at Cannes, and it will transform you and your sex lives!"
Gallop will have a lot more to say on the topic on Tuesday, when she hosts a session here in Cannes on Tuesday called "How to Change the World Through Advertising."