Is the 6 Hour Power secretary spot the most sexually explicit ad ever?

Advertising deconstructed.
March 9 2009 3:19 PM

The Secretary Under the Desk

Is 6 Hour Power running the most sexually explicit ad ever?

The Spot:A sexy secretary answers her intercom. "It's time," says her boss, calling her into his office. We next see the boss experiencing violent spasms of ecstasy. He's seated at his desk, and the secretary is notably not visible. "It's working! I can feel it!" he shouts, his face contorting. We cut to a shot of the product: 6 Hour Power, a concentrated energy drink. "Feel it fast. Energy that lasts. No crash," says the announcer. "Now I'm ready," says the boss, standing up from his desk, sweaty and disheveled.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Ad Report Card reader Lindsey K. e-mails the following request:

Please do a write-up on the awful 6 Hour Power ads that are running on Comedy Central and Adult Swim right now. I have talked to several people and they all hate the ads, but are also confused by them. What exactly is going on? Is he having a seizure? Is he jacking off at his desk?

I watch a lot of late-night TV, and I've seen this ad several times now. I still can't quite believe my eyes when it comes on. First, let's get the big question out of the way. What's happening behind that desk?

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In my view, the ad very clearly implies (right up until the reveal of its final shots) that the secretary is back there, hidden from view, fellating her boss to orgasm. Allow me to present the evidence:

The overt sexuality of the secretary character is out of control. You rarely see skirts this short or cleavage this prominent outside the confines of soft-core porn. She even waves her pen suggestively near her slightly parted, glistening red lips.

At the height of his excitement, leaning back in his chair, the boss flips his necktie over his shoulder. Leaving us to wonder: Just what was the tie in the way of?

There's a framed photo on the man's desk. It's of a blond woman, presumably his wife. In the midst of all those desk-rattling spasms, this photo gets knocked over and smashed on the floor, suggesting that some sort of insult has been inflicted on the innocent woman pictured.

Barring Lindsey K.'s interesting theory that the man is seizing—a notion I'm sure the energy stimulant's manufacturer would prefer not come into play—it's hard to imagine what else might cause the man's ratcheting physical tension and explosive release.

We know the secretary has been called into the office, but we can't see her, which suggests a classic trope of male office lechery: the hot-to-trot secretary kneeling behind the executive's desk.

Seems cut and dried to me. But when I called up Karen Finocchio, vice president of marketing for NVE Pharmaceuticals—the makers of 6 Hour Power—she rather coyly argued that my prurient interpretation exists solely in my head. "It's the theater of the mind," she insisted. "That framed picture could be of his mother, for all you know. And the secretary isn't scantily dressed. It's not beyond what a woman might wear at the office. There's nothing showing!"

Fair enough. Though there's a whole lot of Cleveland visible thanks to her unbuttoned blouse. And I swear that skirt is a repurposed wristband.

Finocchio assured me that the ad has been approved by all relevant authorities. It airs only after 10 p.m. and only on cable channels that already broadcast edgy programming at that hour: Comedy Central, Spike, the Cartoon Network, etc. The spot targets groups Finocchio refers to as "corporate young America" and "the CollegeHumor crowd."

Other ads in the 6 Hour Power campaign target slightly different demographics. An ad for the G4 network shows a video gamer first-person-shooting for hours on end, his focus sharpened by the energy drink. Another ad shows a harried mother chasing a toddler and airs on stations like E! and ABC Family. "There's no one type of person we're trying to reach," Finocchio explains. "Everyone needs energy."

I don't have a problem with the lewdness of the secretary ad. (I do have a problem with its horrific portrayal of workplace gender dynamics. But I'm just going to ignore that here.) The ad is obnoxious, but I'm not much bothered by the thought that, say, kids up late watching TV might see it. If those tykes don't get the "joke," no harm done. If they do, well … that horse was out of the barn. I'd be far more concerned about kids getting hopped up on the actual product.

I do have to wonder, though: Is this the most sexually explicit advertisement ever to air on American television? I'm scanning my memory and can't recall a single ad quite this graphic. Even phone-sex ads—which often show busty women lounging on couches, making bedroom eyes—never dare depict, however elliptically, an ongoing sex act. Ads for the Girls Gone Wild DVDs may show a woman flashing pixilated breasts. But there's a whole lot of distance between the suggestion of nudity and the suggestion of a mind-blowing billy joel.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the ad is that it doesn't make much sense. Presumably the kinetic, desk-shaking segment is a metaphor for the energy boost taking hold. But by the time the guy at last stands up and says he's "ready," he looks completely spent. Drained. Post-coital, if you will. To me, the arc of arousal and then satisfaction suggests the sluggish stupor that might arrive when the energy shot's effects have worn off. Didn't the announcer specifically tell us there's "no crash"? Seems like a confused message.

Still, the ad works. It grabs our attention and raises awareness about the brand. The next time you see a little vial of 6 Hour Power on the shelf of your local Rite Aid, I guarantee you'll recognize the product and link it to the commercial.

In fact, the two elements that make this ad so memorable are: 1) the lasciviousness and 2) the slightly nonsensical weirdness. The ad was conceived and written in house at NVE, not by an ad agency, and it has a certain unpolished, handcrafted quality to it. Given the success of other unforgettably bizarre in-house ads (such as the ones for Head On headache gel and Overstock.com), I wonder if other marketers will begin to follow suit. Who needs slick agency work when you're more likely to attract attention with the advertising equivalent of outsider art?

Grade: B. Cheesy. Raunchy. Effective. By the way, I'm currently writing this under the influence of 6 Hour Power. Finocchio mailed me a sample after we spoke. It's essentially an 8-ounce Red Bull that's been compressed into a 2-ounce bottle. Yes, it has taurine, whatever that is, but really, what you're getting is the caffeine contained in a cup of coffee—delivered in a compact, easily portable, shelf-stable package that, as Finnochio suggests, "you can throw in your purse or tuck in your pocket." I can report to you that the stuff tastes just awful. Also, while I'm wide-awake, and a bit jittery, I do not feel as though I'm receiving a brody jenner.

Is there an ad you love, hate, or can't for the life of you understand? E-mail your suggestions to adreportcard@gmail.com.