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Oh! Oh! Oh ... It's Another 'Sally' Ad

Oh! Oh! Oh … it's another "I'll have what she's having" ad.

It seems that today's products offer women more than just a little excitement. Shopping Web site Overstock.com ads feature a sexy woman declaring "It's all about the O" (for more information dial 1-800-THE-BIG-O). The Oxygen Network (search) promotes itself with the slogan Oh! And new ads for Burlington Coat Factory feature a woman moaning and saying "wrap your arms around me ... Yes! Yes! I want to feeeel your warmth." (She's talking about a coat.)

Ten years ago, Clairol first shocked and amused TV viewers with ads featuring women shrieking with pleasure in the shower while using their "Organic" Herbal Essences shampoo. Now, more and more ads alluding to women's sexual satisfaction are hitting the airwaves.

"It's clearly out there. It was absolutely inevitable that as soon as ad agencies felt these were waters they could tread in, they would do so," said Syracuse University media and pop culture professor Bob Thompson. "Ad agencies have always [suggested that] consumption of our product will bring you sexual satisfaction. Now they're coming out and making the claim."

But not everyone is turned on by these ads. Heather Cirmo, a consultant for the Family Research Council (search), said she's so turned off by them, she won't even use Herbal Essences shampoo or shop at Overstock.com.

"I definitely think that it's a very low blow — it's a cheap shot to get people's attention and usually totally unrelated to the product and to any orgasmic experience," she said. "They (the brands) need to be aware that they are losing some people because of it."

Advertising Age (search) editor Alice Cunejo said pop culture, beginning with a certain famous diner scene, set the mood for the once-forbidden ads.

"Historically, really, it all started with 'When Harry Met Sally,'" she said, referring to the scene in the 1989 Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan movie in which Ryan meticulously mocks an orgasm in a crowded New York City restaurant. "'Sex and the City' opened up these kinds of ideas and scenarios," Cunejo added. "A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon."

While she doesn't remember if it was directly inspired by "When Harry Met Sally," Herbal Essences spokeswoman Anitra Marsh said the "Totally Organic Expereince" ad was a pioneer in advertising.

"It set a new bar for advertisements and pushed the envelope at the time, but in a way that stayed true to the product itself," she said. "The product is really about the experience. [The ad] can't just be sexy, it has to make sense."

Burlington Coat Factory admits their new ad follows in the Herbal Essences tradition, but it thinks their spot does it less gratuitously.

"The Clairol commercial went back to 'When Harry Met Sally.' We're different than Clairol. Here the words are precisely tailored — a coat does embrace you, does make you feel warmth. Then there's a ha-ha — a little shtick. It breaks the tension, doesn't take itself so seriously. Clairol goes all the way through to 'you're gonna climax.' You're not going to feel that way using any product," said H. Robert Greenbaum, vice president of advertising for Burlington.

Greenbaum added that he could have gotten a lot more risqué with the Burlington ad, but thought better of it.

"We're a family business," he said.

Indeed, Thompson said the reason why these "Sally" ads are so effective is that they're still relatively taboo.

"Until relatively recently, until Dr. Ruth in the '80s, you didn't even talk about orgasms on TV. A lot of people didn't even know what a female orgasm was."

Thompson added that after the Janet Jackson (search) peek-a-boob/nipplegate scandal, advertisers would be wise to watch their limits.

"'With the big indecency debate after the Super Bowl, the complaints are not just about programming, they're also about all the ads in between. People don't want embarrassing questions from a 6-year-old."

But with Clairol pulling their ads and so many copycats, the trend may have already hit its peak.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but after a while it's boring," Cunejo said. "Advertisers must always be looking for the next thing to grab people's attention."