There's an ad on billboards at the moment of a luscious, tousled-haired, half-dressed woman. Her lips are full, her eyes smouldering and a glimpse of naked midriff and knee suggest that all she's wearing is a loosely buttoned shirt. "Visible quickie" is the label; "Invisible deodorant" is the catchline.
The ad manages that rare feat of being both daft and offensive. Daft, because who gives a damn about sweating in the midst of passion? (If you disagree, visit a sex therapist.) Offensive because a) this huge image charged with sex is beaming down on kids, grannies and all, b) this woman is being defined by the sexual experience she offers - she is a "quickie" and c) the judgment of her sexual availability is being thrown to the viewer: if she looks a visible quickie to you, there is no need to check, just go for it.
The use of sex is in your face, and a revival of 70s-style advertising when women were draped all over cars. As a similarly nonplussed former advertising executive said, "It's like we've learnt nothing in the last 20 years. It's the laziest, least intelligent kind of advertising." It's nice to hear another adman putting the boot in, because one of the most frustrating things about this ad is that part of its purpose is to shock (denied, of course, by the manufacturers' spokeswoman).
Benetton led the way in using shock: you make the ad an event so people write columns like this and you get more bang for your buck. Those who protest are corralled with Mary Whitehouse and the product's position is strengthened in its target market as youthful, hip, taboo-breaking. Even if the ad is not targeted at you, your outrage is exploited. The last time I complained about an ad, I inadvertently contributed to the strapline of the follow-up campaign which ran something along the lines of, "Last time we ran this ad, women complained. No men." The protest is grist to the mill. Hard luck, you have no comeback over whatever some bunch of marketing execs decide to impose on your eyeballs.
But there's a curious phenomenon here. Another ad in the same invisible deodorant campaign is of a young woman in a classic top-shelf pose, bum in the air, to illustrate her visible panty line. This is a new kind of raunchiness in advertising directed exclusively at women. The same thing is true in a different campaign for hair colour. A woman peeks down her bikini bottom to remind herself of her true hair colour. While this ad is mischievous, it isn't particularly offensive yet it has clocked up the most complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority of any so far this year - 175. Whereas we are used to sex being used to sell to men, this is a new departure, using it to sell to women. (The Renault campaign, "Size matters", is another example.)
Given that all these ads will have been extensively researched with their target market of young women, they indicate a real shift in women's boundaries of what is acceptable in the ladette age - and it upsets people who don't like ladies to be crude. There's a subtle distinction here. Junking the sexist constraints on female humour is one thing (a good one). It is quite another to make a pernicious bid to pass off as sexually liberated (as the invisible deodorant campaign claims to be) what are really images of male desire. That would amount to women desiring what they think men desire. It's a classic form of oppression.
And don't forget, all this fuss is only about a blasted deodorant.Why does boring deodorant have to be eroticised? Do women (as opposed to men) have an erotic relationship with their car? Are there no limits to the products sex is used to advertise? Will hot-water bottles, cocoa and slippers be next? Or could advertising go the way of modern art: the shock factor results in diminishing returns. Instead of sex making deodorant desirable, it makes sex about as desirable as deodorant.
Unfortunately, there's no evidence so far that that is the case. Like it or not, advertising works. The "personal care" market - toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant - has increased by £700m to an annual total of £4.7bn in the past five years. We're not getting any dirtier, but clever marketing has convinced us to part with all those extra millions of pounds. And it's no longer just women; men spend £65m more annually than they did five years ago.
One of the ways they pulled off this coup was weaning us off a 100-year habit of buying bars of soap. Lever Brothers announced recently that they were no longer going to manufacture bars of Lux and Lifebuoy; they have lost out to the liquid-soap dispenser and the shower gel, dropping from a 40% share of the market to 20% in just five years. According to a Lever Brothers spokesman, the humble bar is not as hygienic. The other way to look at it is that a bar lasts for months and is far cheaper, while most liquid soap (the same combination of caustic soda, oil, fat and synthetic smells) goes swiftly down the plughole at twice the price. Meanwhile, another niche market emerges - for "designer soaps". The bar is manoeuvred into the luxury position (huge mark-up) in the market, complete with seaweed, wheatgerm oil and aloe vera.
Our obsession with cleanliness is no trivial matter. It's a metaphor for Everything. Brad Pitt in the cult film Fight Club was a fraudulent soap salesman. His soap was handcrafted and tied with rough twine, but he made it from human fat stolen from the local crematorium. A comparable corruption underpins the personal-care industry, which manufactures millions of gallons of petrochemicals for us to pour down our drains in a bid for shiny hair and smooth skin.
We city dwellers feel comforted by an ersatz relationship with nature as we smear ourselves in tea-tree oil and mud packs. This is a utilitarian relationship with nature, in which it becomes a treasure chest of consumer goodies. It's also a fake relationship with ourselves: frustrated female appetites are consoled with olfactory stimulation: bananas, strawberries, raspberries in the soap or bath oil. We delude ourselves that we are looking after ourselves, lying in our bath perfumed with lavender essential oil surrounded by scented candles, when we'd do our skin far more good if we gave up coffee, alcohol and the rat race.
Finally, the cult of personal cleanliness is an ersatz religion. Our bathrooms ape a Catholic church - all smells and candles. These rituals of purification are comparable with those of devout Muslims, Jews or Hindus. The label on one lump of vegetable oil makes the point explicitly: "a soft floral bouquet of pink and yellow flowers leads you down the path to nirvana". Soap salvation. The "cleanliness is next to godliness" Puritans would have approved. All that's missing is the ritual sacrifice - the fatted calf.
But is it? Perhaps we are the sacrifice: stewing in our baths in those brief pauses between frenzied earning and spending money on things we'd never dreamt of - like invisible deodorant. That then needs washing off - the admen have got us every time.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000