Using sexually suggestive content to market products or services is as old as advertising itself. The truism of sex sells is pushed forward in advertising with every passing Super Bowl. Jeans and shampoo as sexualized products are standard fare. The latest messages to be sexed-up include website hosting, cancer awareness, and coffee. When it comes to competing for limited attention spans, sex is pretty much a sure bet. Like moths to a flame, we humans are a predictable lot. Even the moral outrage that follows sexualized marketing is practically scripted.
From an ad agency’s viewpoint, the sexualized nature of advertising is on full display on stock photography websites. Even a seemingly benign search query will generate images of scantily clad women (a microcosm of the Internet). Just about any search for pictures of women will produce results for images tagged as sexy [see sexism below]. What is perhaps surprising is that this remains consistent for stock imagery of business professionals. A search for “sexy lawyers” produces results that are 90% female and 72% offensive.
If sex sells just about everything, can it sell legal services?
It certainly sells the profession. The handsome lawyer is a staple of American culture, from Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch to George Clooney as Michael Clayton. Much like Law & Order evolved to reflect modern technology, so too have women emerged as central characters in legal dramas. The Ally MacBeal effect also established law firms as highly sexualized workplaces where female lawyers would routinely use their sex appeal as yet another weapon in their legal toolkits. The Harvey Specter effect follows suit(s) and the Internet has even taken the time to create a Law & Order Prosecutor Hotness Ranking.
Outside of prime time programming, sex has not been a big part of marketing law firms…in Canada at any rate (must be our British roots). Leaving aside the wildly immature Life’s Short. Get a Divorce campaign flogged to death (pun intended) by American law firm Corri Fetman & Associates, Ltd., sex has not been a substantive part of the Canadian legal advertiser’s paradigm. My view is that this is directly tied to the ever-present issue of Women & the Law. The short story is that women have not achieved equal participation in the profession due to entrenched social and economic structures. If I had an MBA, I would note that the legal profession lacks a level playing field.
The stereotype of old white men has remained the dominant face of the profession. Marketing this demographic with sex appeal has not been a popular approach. Neither has harnessing the sex appeal of young male associates in their sharp three piece suits. This follows from the traditional view that most clients are caucasian heterosexual men. This raises the question of who are these hypothetical clients that we’re talking about and how can we give them what they want?
Times change. My law school class was around 60% female. While the structural problems at the top of the profession remain unresolved, there are now binders of women practising law. Similarly, the hypothetical client is changing as well. With such demographic changes and an increasingly competitive market, can sex sell legal services? Or to take another tack…should it?
Do clients want to hire sexy lawyers?
The big question from our perspective is who clients want to hire. By that we mean what characteristics do they possess that go beyond skin deep. Anecdotally, we still see a strong demand for old white men because they “look like lawyers.” This cuts across gender, ethnicity, and age. I still hear stories of clients who hire lawyers without any overlapping spoken language competency. There is certainly emerging demand evidenced by Google searches for other compentencies like: “Punjabi Speaking Injury Lawyer” or “Best Female Family Lawyers.” However, this group of prospective clients remains a small, albeit growing, segment of the market. Either prospective clients don’t care, or sex and age are implied in generic search queries.
What I can say is that people aren’t actively looking for sexy lawyers. I’ve seen almost every imaginable legal search query over the years and sex has never been on the radar. The subsequent question is whether sex appeal would make the difference in choosing between equally qualified counsel. We know that a lawyer’s image on their LinkedIn profile is the most important part of the profile, but does this apply to looking sexy on a website? Does a sexy image undermine your competency as a lawyer? This is certainly a risk.
Lawyers have the advantage of professional attire. Both men and women can look good in business clothes. Well-cut suits and business skirts are routinely cited as being sexy uniforms. There is also a confidence and projected power carried by many lawyers that people find sexually compelling. Whether intentional or not, there are already firms of “hot lawyers.”
My view is that lawyers should market themselves according to their personality. If you have a sexually charged public personality, go with it (bearing in mind the dicates of the Code of Professional Conduct and the legal marketing rules therein…ahem). The legal market is vast and there is room for all kinds of personalities. The other advantage in harnessing sex appeal is that it allows you to distinguish yourself from competitors. This is, after all, one of the goals of marketing.
Building Lex Appeal
The majority of lawyers will choose not to market their services using sex. In that case, you still need something other than legal competency through which prospective clients can relate to you and remember you. I call this zest. It can be art, music, shoes, sports, religion, a cowboy hat or your crazy polka dot bow-tie. It just needs to be something. For example, I’m a lawyer that bakes pies. That’s my zest. While some lawyers are lawyer’s lawyers (people who are lawyers to their very spiritual core) there’s only so much room for this brand in any market. For emphasis, it is OK for lawyers to have a personality.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the blatant sexism in this blog post. While I’ve tried to be fair between the sexes, the world doesn’t even pretend to be fair. The notion that “sex sells” is generally synonymous with “objectified female bodies leveraged to make a buck at the expense of gender equality.” This culture pervades our society. Accordingly, using sex appeal in any marketing is admittedly problematic. While I do see this as a problem, I also think that it helps change public perceptions in terms of who looks like a lawyer. Lawyers come in all genders, colours, shapes, sizes, and ages. From a marketing perspective, each of these is a branding opportunity. There’s nothing more modern than acknowledging sexism, owning your sex appeal, and getting back to work.