A flyer came through my letterbox today from a hearing company. The image showed a disappointed-looking, middle-aged woman holding up a pair of skimpy red panties. The caption read, “Sue told Roy she liked exotic plants.” Obviously, what Roy heard was “erotic pants.”

From the advertiser’s perspective, there are two objectives. The first is that this is supposed to be funny. Erotic pants instead of exotic plants—ha ha, how droll. Secondly, we are supposed to rush to them to get our hearing checked and then invest in a hearing aid.

The advert deliberately trades on our fear of sexual embarrassment and its close cousin, sexual humiliation

There is a third element in play here. It would be interesting to know whether the advertisers (or the agency that cooked up the flyer) are aware of it: sexual shame. The advert deliberately trades on our fear of sexual embarrassment and its close cousin, sexual humiliation. To avoid Roy’s embarrassment (Don’t be like Roy!) we should get our hearing checked. The sexual shaming continues inside the flyer: “Is it time you stopped getting your family’s knickers in a twist?”

The panty colour spectrum

This message that sexuality is shameful is reinforced by the flyer’s colour scheme. Sue has been dressed in pink, the colour of innocent girliness, and stands against a pink background. The panties are bright red—the traditional colour associated with the harlot. White panties signal virtue; black ones signal chic—but red ones signal sex. Sue stretches the panties distastefully between her hands. She signals her disapproval of Roy with a pout.

The lame humour of this emotionally underhanded piece of advertising is another clue to the underlying shame. Because sexuality is considered to be something embarrassing to air in public, it can only be approached through humour. The humour—or supposed humour—provides a safety valve that lets people laugh off their nervousness at this socially embarrassing subject being raised. Get a hearing aid and you, too, will be spared Roy’s ignominious fate.

Frankly, Sue can fuck off. And I shan’t be getting my hearing checked.