OPINION: Advertising tips from a brothel owner

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
When it comes to advertising, sometimes you just need to say it as it is.

I was at this brothel the other day.

Well, not exactly the other day … more like the other year. But the experience stayed with me and taught me a lesson I still use in my work. (My work, before you ask, does not relate to brothels, but to advertising.)

I was there because a couple of bright young creative people at the ad agency I helped lead had come up with an idea. It somewhat confirms the point of this story that I don’t remember what the idea was. I think it had something to do with telephone poles, but I can’t be certain.

So we were at this brothel. The idea, you see, was a recruitment ad for a strip club. We thought it was pretty clever, and if we could get the owner of this strip club/brothel to agree to us running it on his behalf, the skies would open and rain advertising awards down on our deserving heads. 

All he had to do was say yes.

As instructed, we arrived at the back entrance (I know, I know) and were let in to wait for the proprietor. He was on the phone to someone, and in the 10 minutes or so it took him to finish his conversation, we made ourselves at home in what turned out to be the break room-slash-clubhouse for the women who worked in the two businesses.

It was quite the place. A bit like the Playboy Mansion – had the Playboy Mansion been built in Lower Hutt by someone from Ashburton. More than one can of gold spray paint had been sacrificed in order to make plastic things look like plastic things that had been sprayed with gold paint. 

Women from the strip club and brothel lounged about in what today we’d call yoga pants, some holding what today we’d call ridiculously small dogs. Tea was made, and biscuits were nibbled.

Eventually, the proprietor finished his phone call and asked to hear our idea.

As I mentioned, I don’t remember the finer points, but we must have been pretty keen on it to trek across town to try and sell it. Odds on, it was clever, and knowing what I was into at the time, it probably contained one or more puns. After a brief set-up from me, the creative team began to present the ad.

And that’s as far as they got.

“I’ll have to stop you there,” rasped the proprietor. “I’m going to tell you a story.”

OK, we thought, fair enough. Who doesn’t like a story? Anyway, it’s your strip club break room, so your rules. 

“When I opened my first club,” he began, “I tried to be subtle. We wanted to keep things classy. So I had signs made and put up so everyone could see them. And do you know what they said?”

We did not.

“They said ‘Gentlemen, please behave like gentlemen.’ Pretty subtle, but pretty clear I thought at the time. And how well do you think these signs worked? Any idea?”

We could have guessed, I suppose, but we were enjoying the story and the contrast the field trip made to our usual world of advertising hamburgers, appliances and mortgages. We shook our heads.

“They made no bloody difference at all,” said our host, leaning close enough for us to count every one of his gold teeth and smell every cigarette he’d smoked that afternoon. “No difference at all. The guys still behaved like animals.”

He paused, giving us a moment to acknowledge that he was about to reach The Point.

“So I gave up on being subtle,” he said, waving a hand towards our ads and scattering Rothmans ash over our carefully drawn visuals. “And here’s what I did. Every time a guy would come into the club, didn’t matter if he was young or old, rich or poor, I’d tell him the same thing …

“Don’t touch the pussy.

“And I learned from that. And that’s what I’ve got to say to you today.”

After wondering for a second if one of us accidentally had touched the pussy, we realised we’d just been delivered an allegory. 

So we thanked the proprietor for his time and promised that, yes, we’d come back to him just as soon as we came up with some ads that were a better fit with his way of communicating.

We never did, but we did take away a handy lesson in the realities of business. Sometimes it pays to be subtle. Sometimes, though, you just have to say, “Don’t touch the pussy.” ⋅