GARY STEEL takes a close look at the salacious world of 20th Century hi-fi advertising.
Does the pursuit of excellence in sound reproduction necessarily go together with oodles of sex?
Anyone taking a gander at hi-fi advertising from the golden age of the stereo revolution would sensibly come to the same conclusion: that the two are inextricably linked.
Although I’m as interested in the female form as the next heterosexual bloke, this never entered my mind when I was first getting into hi-fi. As a teenager searching out my first “separates” (turntable/amplifier/speakers) I was only really aware of rather dry articles with lots of statistics.
As an adolescent, I experienced 2-channel hi-fi because one of my sister’s friends ran a small business in Hamilton selling and fixing them, and my sister flatted with a bunch of hippies whose stereo systems sounded about a thousand times better than my parents’ old-fashioned radiogram, which sounded fine on Bing Crosby records made in the 1940s, but rather lacked contour and dynamics or any kind of real sound spectrum in its attempt to reproduce the latest sounds from the rock revolution.
It’s only really in retrospect as the internet bulges with sexualised semi-naked, hugely suggestive images of women draped over and around hi-fi gear (and the cool guys that own it) that it’s dawned on me how the phenomenon of hi-fi was sold to the populace over the years.
These days, hi-fi is largely the pursuit of boomers, and presumably many of those would have been seduced into an interest in audiophile pursuits through those ads as young men. Although in my experience, hardcore (so to speak) audiophiles tend to be guys (yes, they’re almost always guys) with an elevated understanding of electronics and other technical stuff that the likes of me could never quite aspire to.
“Sex sells”, as the saying goes, and just about anything geared towards adults in the last half of the 20th century was prone to this truism. Who remembers those 1970s TV ads for chocolate treat Flake where the young woman looks like she’s giving the little log a blowjob?
I guess the hi-fi equals hot blonde paradigm started with the idea that hi-fi was hip and cool and that any chap who invested in it would be a babe magnet. The early days of hi-fi were in the tail end of a more conservative era (the late ‘50s) so most of the imagery from that time seems to have been around the wonder of new stereophonic reproduction, and the ‘exotic’ long-playing records that were made to make full use of the new stereo sounds. Hence, the craze for Martin Denny-type easy listening but fine-sounding instrumental music and so-called ‘bachelor pad music’.
Bachelor pad music: how more self-explanatory can a music craze/phrase get? Those sultry sounds and the sexy stereos were going to pull the birds, weren’t they? And over these years society’s mores rapidly shifted, from the ultra-conservatism of post-war 1950s to the freedom espoused by the so-called beat poets (and jazz, if you happened to live in a hep town) and the very notion of company-seeking bachelors living in modern apartments.
It was in this early-to-mid-‘60s environment that magazines like Playboy arose. We look back on the way these publications sexualised women with disdain, but it’s too easy to forget the revolution that came with them. Playboy, as with the sexual revolution that followed it with the advent of ‘the pill’ and the peace and free love of the hippie generation, was only a step on the way towards female emancipation, but it was something.
But it also reflected a society flush with cash and the cult of individualism (together with a certain selfishness), and it’s in this environment that hi-fi could really flourish.
For a relatively brief moment in time (the late ‘60s/ and into the ‘70s) the pursuit of hi-fi was seen as something really cool. Whether the advertising industry’s ongoing sexualisation of hi-fi made it cool, or whether the technology and the pursuit of good sound was cool in itself is really beside the point. It’s a classic chicken or egg conundrum.
The really sad thing is that it seems that to get enough people to purchase hi-fi, sex-laced imagery was deemed necessary in the first place; the assumption being that a good percentage of the purchasers of said equipment weren’t really interested in good sound at all, but fell for the idea that it might get them laid.
Looking at these ads from a 21st Century perspective they seem quite shocking. It’s not that they’re particularly explicit. After all, a 10-year-old could easily find a porn site online offering the kind of sex play that would offend most hi-fi addicts. It’s just the overt suggestiveness behind the ideas these ads are portraying.
But then, I’m talking as if sexualised images of females being associated with hi-fi and technology is a really ancient thing. You don’t see sexy hi-fi ads any more, but the baton passed to gadget magazines some time in the 1990s. UK magazine T3 is a classic example of a publication that used titillating and somewhat salacious pictures of women on its covers to sell gadgetry.
And my guess is that it’s not the paradigm that’s changed but the category. Small gadgets are in now and hi-fi is seen as a dying art (although some would claim that it is going through a mini-renaissance in some micro-sectors).
For seven years earlier this century I edited Tone magazine, which tried to mix hi-fi and home theatre with gadgetry. When I came on board the magazine had been featuring sexy ‘birds’ on its cover. I set out to change all that, figuring that the magazine’s audience would much rather see the gadgets than a picture of a scantily-clad, suggestively posed female.
I was wrong. The few issues the magazine featured gadgets and non-sexualised images on its cover bombed big-time. Sales plummeted, and management demanded the reinstatement of “a bit of fluff”. I was despondent at the time but in retrospect I can see their point. No one will publish a magazine that doesn’t make money.
Did the highly sexually charged images that advertised hi-fi in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s work to the industry’s advantage? I’ve no doubt that they were attention-getters. Unfortunately, it says more about human nature and society than anything else.
These days, advertising for serious audiophiles features beautiful photographs of the gear itself, and that’s as it should be. We might say that listening to a beautiful piece of music on a fantastic stereo is as good as sex, but that doesn’t mean we should sexualise a woman’s body just to promote the gear.
Still, there’s something fascinating about these old ads. If you look at it another way I guess you could say that many audiophiles are aesthetically oriented and that their interest might be primarily in music reproduction, but they’re also interested in the engineering and aesthetic beauty – the form – of the gear. These are probably also individuals who can appreciate a great coffee or a superior glass of wine or, dare I say it, the finer points of the female form.
Whatever the case, looking back at these images is an odd experience. We can try and understand the culture they grew out of, but ultimately, it’s quite alien.