Sales and Sex Appeal

Sex sells. Or so they say. But maybe that's not quite right. Maybe this is more accurate: The mystery of sex sells. The suggestion of it. What's the difference? Mystery and suggestion do something that showing everything can't – they engage the imagination. Sex experts the world over will tell you that the most sensitive and responsive erogenous zone of a person's body is the brain. That's what advertisers aim for every time. Some celebrities try to engage our brains in the same way. Meet the master (or is it mistress?): Scarlett Johansson.

In a town where virtually every actress takes off her clothes at some point (man, even Kathy Bates has done a nude scene), Johansson remains all allure, all suggestion — at least by choice. The recent hacked nude images from her mobile phone were a blip on an otherwise conservative radar.

The best directors in the world recognize the allure of her mystery. Christopher Nolan, who cast her in The Prestige, says she possesses an "ambiguity… a shielded quality." Woody Allen, who has directed her in three movies so far, is far less subtle: "[She's] sexually overwhelming"- which could say more about Allen than about her.

Her reputation for enjoying an occasional fling was fueled when she joked about a possible sexual romp with Benicio Del Toro in the elevator of the Chateau Marmont hotel after the 2004 Oscars. Both of them have denied it ever since, with Johansson pointing out that the elevator there is too small to pull off that kind of stunt (for the record, I've ridden that elevator; Scarlett's right – very cramped). But the story did nothing to dim her appeal.

All of this brings up an interesting question: How much does sexual attraction figure into commerce, and how much should one take advantage of it? It's been a longtime sales strategy to send your best-looking folks out on the road. (You'd still have a hard time finding unattractive pharmaceutical reps). If you can make more money with a pretty face out front, there are few capitalists in the world who wouldn't do it.

It's a touchy balancing act, though. A good-looking male rep sitting down with a female client (or vice-versa) may lead to an unspoken, underlying agreement that attraction is part of the bargain. But if it's pushed too far or sold too hard, it can lead to misinterpretation and even resentment or backlash. (In Hollywood, it's called Megan Fox.)

Johansson's star continues to rise. She'll once again be dressed in skin-tight leather and doing acrobatic combat for 14-year-old boys (and their fathers) as the Black Widow in one of the biggest films of 2012, The Avengers. And the hacked photos that made their way across the Internet did no damage to her career (the photos, if you didn't see them, were quite tasteful compared to the garden-variety celebrity candids that find their way out there). Her public denouncement of the invasion of privacy led to the FBI catching the man who did it. The good girl wins.

One thing is certain: She knows what she's doing. We've bought what she's selling. After all, few of us can resist a mystery.

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