Sex, Death and Sales – When taboos sell and when they don’t


The Taboos

Our least favorite conversation to have with parents or children is the one about sex.  Those damn Puritans tied so many rules and taboos to the topic that we’ve been ingrained to forget that we are just mammals and sex is a natural part of our biology.  Thanks to our cultural taboos, knowing that it’s biology doesn’t make it any easier.  Our number two least  favorite topic of conversation is the one about death.  Nobody wants to bring it up because of some fear that talking about it may turn those sunken sockets in your direction.  Death is the muggle Voldemort.

Back to sex for a second.  One of the primary marketing premises the world over is that sex sells.  This was certainly true in the Don Draper era.   It still holds true today but to a lesser extent especially in the #metoo era.  Why does sex sell?  Partly, because of the taboo.  The taboo is different, forbidden.  Forbidden is exciting.  We make buying decisions all the time because the product or ad speaks to us on a primal level.  It’s hard to get more primal than sex.  The risqué implications of sexy products are also aspirational.  If I buy that product or have that body on the billboard, I’ll get more of it.  That may not be me in the ad but it could be.

The transformation of ‘sex sells’

You can see why sex is not selling as well in the millennial age.  Tinder and porn are everywhere.  The casual hookup has become nothing more than a sloppy intergender high five.  What’s exciting today in a world of tightly curated outward expression is authenticity.  Everyone craves something real.  Social media has made authenticity the new taboo.  All but  teenage boys know that porn isn’t real.  Porn is a parody of connection, a cheap knock off of authenticity masquerading as fantasy.  So, when we see sex being used in ads today, it feels latexy.  It feels fake.  The taboo around it is less exciting than skeezy.

When death does sell

Grim-Reaper-Selling.jpgSo where does death fit in?  Death is about as primal and authentic as we get as a species.  How does this taboo sell in the market?   Look back to the eighties action movie for inspiration.  Body count was the primary driver of any Stallone or Schwarzenegger flick.  The gorier the better.  Same is true with horror.  Most of the time the hero makes it.  This sells because we identify with the hero.  In those fantasies, death always happens to someone else.  It allows us to explore the concept, be afraid of it, then let it go without dealing with any of the underlying difficult stuff.  Experience the fear of death with none of the consequence.  Same thing happened here that happened with sex.  A high body count enveloped the reaper in a shroud of banality.  When it became boring we felt less threatened by it.

Death got more authentic in fiction with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.  The main character (spoiler alert) gets killed off at the end of the first season.  Just like that, the rules changed.  You now had real tension when other main characters got in tricky situations.  Martin knew what he was doing as he continued to kill off favorite character after favorite character.  The Walking Dead has the same philosophy, the primary characters have just as much of a chance of dying as the peripheral ones.  This makes for riveting drama because if you are identifying with one of the heroes, maybe you would have died too.  That’s uncomfortable.  It’s authentic.  However, it is still once removed from us.  When we turn off the TV or close the book, it’s still the character that has died and not us or a loved one.

On the much darker side of non-fiction, we know that death will always sell when it comes to weapons.  Strongmen and dictators are constantly on the prowl for tools to bring death unto others and keep it away from themselves.  This segues into security and insurance.  It’s marketed as risk mitigation but death is implicit in every message.  Death and fear are almost always sold as a two-pack.  To say fear is effective in selling product might be the understatement of the year.

When it doesn’t sell

What doesn’t sell is when death becomes personal.  When it becomes your story.  This is why we dislike talking about the inevitability of death with our family members and friends.  We act like if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us.  Dig hole in sand, insert head.  The overarching fear of the topic blinds us to the benefits of having the conversation.

When we talk about death in its authentic form, we are forced to face mortality.  That might be our mortality or it might be the mortality of a loved one.  However, when we dip a toe in those waters it feels sacred, taboo.  That’s a shame.  Anytime you hear management or personal development gurus talk about ‘keeping the end in mind’, death is that ultimate end.  Facing mortality allows you to sweep the petty crap off the table and start having real conversations.  It provides context to reevaluate what living well means.  It allows you to crystalize your priorities in a way that nothing else can.  Steve Jobs summarized this nicely when he said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

The true horror stories come about when we don’t have this conversation with loved ones.  When your end of life wishes or the wishes of a loved one are not understood.  This means making sure you get out there and fill in your advanced directive or living will, fill in your medical durable power of attorney (MPOA), fill in your MOST forms or POLST forms.  The horror begins when you can no longer speak for yourself and you receive the default care which is to do everything in the medical establishment’s power to keep you alive even if it means destroying the quality of life you have left and subjecting you to horrifying, dignity robbing treatments in the name of safety and prolongment.  That’s way scarier than Nightmare on Elm Street.  Yet, If these tasks are left undone, your loved ones will panic when their backs are up against the wall.  They’ll look for every shred of hope that prolongment will bring you back to the old you.  Sadly, that almost never happens.  Instead, you end up in an institutional purgatory with tubes and wires creeping out of every orifice.  That’s terrifying.

Facing mortality = huge benefit

So, how do we sell the importance of facing mortality?  One way is talking about legacy.


Face fear – face mortality

Most of us seem to want to leave something behind that transcends our own life.  Another is it helps us live in the now.  A drunk driver could end your life tomorrow, so live for today.  These tactics only seem to work for a few.

So, how do we get folks to recognize these benefits when they haven’t been hit with the mortality stick?  When it hasn’t been made personal like losing a parent or getting an incredibly scary diagnosis?  That seems to be the most difficult sell in the world.  Dating back over two thousand years, Seneca first understood this when he wrote in On Shortness of Life  – “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.  Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

Talking about death and mortality lets us invest in the important stuff.  That’s a tough sell because it requires overcoming fear and stripping away pretense.  It means a lot of discomfort.  The payoff is huge but so is the payoff for exercising and saving.  Most of us don’t want to do those things either.  The good news is we’re making progress.  Things like death cafes, Ask a Mortician, The Conversation Project, etc. are all trying to bring this conversation to the forefront.  But we haven’t found the message that is going to bring the mainstream on board yet.  It’s always going to be a tough sell.  If you have ideas of how to reach the majority of the population please leave them in the comments section.  We’re still looking.

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