Are you getting enough digital sex?

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns brought to you in association with CircleSquare. To introduce a note of positivity and hope in 2021, the experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist is using this column to share insights, ideas and tips to help the global travel retail industry get back on its feet and capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves. Here, Executive Creative Director Philip Handley says that digital investment by brands and retailers will only work with a disruptive ‘hook’ that cuts through the noise that greets travellers on their return to airports.

Woody Allen famously said, “I don’t know the question, but sex is definitely the answer”. Despite what you might think of the rather controversial Woody Allen, there might be some truth to this statement, especially when you consider what makes things sell? The idea that sex could be used to sell brands seems to be something of an outdated concept in our ‘woke’ era. However, since its first recorded sighting back in 1871, the use of sexual imagery and innuendo has grown incrementally. A study from the University of Georgia in the USA, found that advertising featuring sexual content increased by a staggering +80% between the years of 1983 and 2003 alone. The Journal of Consumer Affairs found in 2009 that that advertising aimed at young adults was +65% more likely to contain provocatively dressed models and +128% more likely to feature implied sexual behaviour. As recently as last year, sex, sexuality and nudity accounted for 32% of all official advertising complaints in the UK and over 36% of all complaints in Australia. Behaviourists and cognitive scientists may disagree on exactly how many human instincts exist, or where they might sit in order of hierarchy. One thing they all agree on is that sex, or to use more scientific language, procreation for the continuation of the species, is very near the top of everyone’s list.

CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley

Essentially, the human brain is hard-wired to recognise sexually relevant information because it is vital to the continuation of our species. Incorporating something in your marketing which ‘triggers’ this type of response can be incredibly successful at catching people’s attention in a cluttered and noisy environment. So, there you have it, it’s not your fault that you couldn’t resist. It might also be why the deliberately salacious headline and gratuitous imagery lured you into reading this column. Closer analysis, however, shows that while the human brain is indeed gripped by provocative or risky material, it doesn’t mean these need to be connected to sex. Your brilliant brain subconsciously processes between 4,000 and 10,000 pieces of marketing communication each day, filtering out the noise and leaving you to concentrate on that gripping new podcast everyone is talking about.

Unless, that is, your brain comes across something which seems out of context or which doesn’t look right. That’s because our pattern-seeking brains are not just filtering out the benign stuff, they are also scanning for potential threats to our safety and our instinct for survival trumps everything, even sex. Dissonant information is red flagged and immediately brought out of your subconscious to the front of your mind, demanding the full attention of your brain without distraction. It’s a bit like why you turn down the car radio when you need to concentrate on finding a parking space or why you close your eyes when you’re trying to remember where you left your house keys. You need to turn off all that extraneous stimuli to allow your brain to fully focus. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first essential ingredient of the successful creative cocktail. The hook, the disrupter, the attention-grabber or whatever you choose to call it, is vital to get you off to a great start. But before we move onto the second crucial element, all this talk of sex and subconscious attention-grabbing is all well and good, but so far there hasn’t even been so much as whiff of ‘digital’ despite the promising headline. Unless you have been on another planet for the past 18 months, it would have been impossible to escape the inexorable rise of digital across every facet of life, not least the travel retail industry. The initial wave has quickly become a tsunami; a result of the global pandemic forcing everyone’s hand and leading to a flood of digital initiatives to help fill the huge void caused by disappearing passenger numbers. It should come as no surprise that the subsequent learning curve has been quite so nerve-rackingly steep because, let’s be honest, historically travel retail has been left some way behind by other industries when it comes to integrating digital. Some creative agencies, such as our very own CircleSquare have been masters of integrating digital in domestic retail for several years. But in travel retail we have seen the near extinction of ‘traditional’ travel retail briefs, requiring permanent or temporary visibility in store, at the expense of a giant surge for demand for our digital teams.

The thought that digital can be the panacea for travel retail sales couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that digital is an absolutely vital tool which, when coupled perfectly with laser-focused data analysis and expert media planning, can target our consumers with precise and relevant customer data, beginning their shopper journey long before they ever set foot in an airport. In addition, digital also gives us the ability to remain ‘always connected’ allowing our consumer to seamlessly switch from physical to digital and back again without even thinking about it. This ensures we always show up at the right time and in the right place, every time, wherever and whenever our consumer desires. There is simply no doubting the brilliant potential of digital; the practicality, the immediacy and the simplicity is breath-taking. It is also, unfortunately, achingly dull for shoppers. Digital at its very best should be exactly like one of those incredible waiters you see in fancy Michelin starred restaurants. Or, to put it more accurately, like one of those waiters you don’t see in fancy restaurants because they are so utterly efficient at their craft, everything appears at your hand seamlessly, exactly when you need it. You never need to take your attention off the delicious cuisine, the delectable ambience and the delightful conversation. You will be raving about this experience to all your friends who in turn will be clamouring to make a booking at the same restaurant (as soon as Covid-19 rules permit obviously). But perfect waiter service aside, this magic formula only works if the other parts of the restaurant ‘experience’ match this level of excellence. If you’d never heard of the restaurant in the first place, you would never have visited and never been able to marvel at the impeccable table service. Similarly, having drawn your clientele in with your new attention-grabbing skills, you could have the finest waiters in the world but if your cuisine lacks imagination, your chefs struggle to deliver memorable flavour sensations and your front of house team cannot put on a show for your patrons, the restaurant is ultimately doomed.

It is the intangible quality of jaw-droppingly good creativity that makes up the final part of our creative cocktail. Focus all your efforts and your budget on digital while choosing to ignore creativity, engagement, storytelling, gamification and pure unadulterated fun, and you’ll be out of business quicker than a restaurant serving inedible food on dirty plates. A word of caution though. Just like you wouldn’t expect miracles if you hire inexperienced chefs, force them to cook with inferior produce or demand the menu contains only the type of food any Tom, Dick or Harry could rustle up on a typical weeknight, don’t expect miracles if you use this same approach when it comes to creativity either.

To help you find that perfect creative balance, here are a few pointers from our team of designers: Forget what you knew Divorce yourself from what counted as good creative in the past. Those standards will not stand a chance in the cluttered world we are about to return to. Stop copying This has nothing to do with copyright or Intellectual Property. If you are copying what somebody else has already done, your creative thinking is going to be out of date by the time it goes live. Focus on coherence, not consistency Old fashioned brand consistency is like a sleeping pill for today’s consumer. Inconsistency can make your communication stand out from the crowd. Keep moving Yesterday’s creative was passive and static. Today’s creative must be alive and constantly evolving. Keeping up with your brand is half the fun for consumers. Let ‘creatives’ do the creative thinking Unless your official title is Creative Director, give your agency’s creative teams free reign to develop creative ideas. Avoid death by committee More brilliant creative ideas have been hacked to death by groups of stakeholders that anyone could count. Appoint one single decision maker and stop each stakeholder from adding their own personal little tweak, just to demonstrate their involvement in the process. Be brave Taking creative risks not only pays off most of the time, it is also almost unheard of for shoppers to deselect your brands because they don’t like your latest creative campaign. In fact, you are likely to win over more people with your bravery. We are frequently asked by clients how we can be certain of capturing everyone’s data. The thing is, you can have as much technical wizardry at your disposal as you like but it doesn’t matter to a consumer. The very same consumer will, however, gladly hand over all their personal details to you if you are giving them something they want. Nothing stands in your way if the consumer sees a fair value exchange and the simplest and most effective way of adding this value is through top rate creativity. Over the coming weeks and months, you will see countless examples of brands and retailers launching digital initiatives, trying to find that crucial point of difference. Without a clever disruptive ‘hook’ to cut through the cacophony of noise which will greet passengers on their return to airports and without meaningful, compelling creativity which provides both fun and value, they are doomed to failure. The trouble is, you see, we’ve all been getting way too much meaningless digital sex and not nearly enough engaging, memorable and wholesome omnichannel creativity.

*About Circle Square

If you want to start building for a better future, CircleSquare, with its global network of creative studios, is uniquely placed to help you develop evocative environments, connected omnichannel shopper strategies and boundless passenger experiences, seamlessly across both the digital and physical worlds.

CircleSquare’s in-depth understanding of global travel retail has earned it an impressive client list, including Diageo, Mondelez, Luxottica, Lacoste and L’Oréal Luxe, alongside retailers like DFS, Dufry and Heinemann.

CircleSquare has offices in nine global locations including London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, covering every phase of the retail journey process from strategy and creative to design and delivery. You’ll find its work in retail stores, pop-up spaces and airports all over the world.

Contact: Executive Creative Director Philip Handley at

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The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 294 | 28 April 2021

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 15 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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