Sex Sells Nuts!

© Thomas Tucker

Sex sells basically anything. Even nuts. A small oval green parcel consisting of an areca nut wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf is the main actor of this story. This parcel is referred to as betel quid, betel nut or Taiwan’s chewing gum and it‘s so stimulating that you might as well down six cups of coffee! But not only does this power nut give you a massive buzz, it‘s also said to help with indigestion and impotence. They also are amongst the most popular mind-altering substances in the world (alongside nicotine, alcohol and caffeine) as they are consumed by ten percent of the world’s population. They might not be a thing in our part of the world, but they surely are very popular in Asia.

One Asian country has a very unique marketing strategy to sell its betel nuts. In Taiwan, it’s all about sex sells. Okay, sex sells is by no means a new or unique advertising strategy as the first ads showing women who were barely wearing anything can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century! But other than posters, neon signs or TV and radio spots, Taiwan has the betel nut beauties. These beautiful young women wearing super short skirts, tiny shirts (or even only bras) and breakneck high heels can be spotted along most of Taiwan’s main roads. They are standing in front or sitting inside of tiny neon-lit glass booths and the unsuspecting tourist might mistake them for prostitutes. And who can blame them? When you observe the whole situation, it might look a lot like prostitution: a vehicle (usually a taxi or truck) with a male driver pulls over in front of the see-through glowing kiosk and the half-naked girl will walk over to her customer and lean into the window. After a quick chat, instead of getting into the car, she will then hand a bag or box filled with betel nuts over to the driver. The concept is perhaps equal to the bikini car washes we know from American high school movies.

The tradition started in the late 1960s with the Shuangdong Girls at the Shuangdong betel nut stand in Guoxing Township in Nantou County (West Taiwan). The betel nut girls were supposed to give an extra sparkle to the up to the very normal business of selling betel quid. In the 1990s, the business was booming. There were about 100,000 sexy betel nut stands throughout Taiwan. But in order to protect the women, the local governments started regulating the dress code in 2002. From then on, the girls had to wear less revealing outfits that covered their bellies, bums and boobs (the outfits are still rather revealing though). Nowadays, after big cities like Taipei banned the betel nut girls and their stands from their city centres, there are approximately 60,000 stands left in Taiwan.

Most of the betel nut girls are very young (sometimes even underage) and not very well educated. As they have difficulties finding a job, becoming a betel nut beauty is an easy way to earn a fairly good amount of money for quite an easy work. Especially when you compare it to the most common alternative: working long shifts in a factory. However, betel nut beauties work long shifts as well (8 to 12 hours). Apparently, if you are a very successful and beautiful saleswoman, it can pay more than college graduates earn when they are working in their first office job. On good days, the beauties make about $1,500 to $1,900, which is enough to support their families.

Working as a betel nut girl, however, is socially not very well accepted in Taiwan, especially because Taiwan is a rather conservative country. Activists argue that betel nut beauties degrade and devalue themselves and that they are only one step away from prostitution. It is also argued that they set a bad example for young girls as they demonstrate successfully that having no education doesn’t stop you from earning good money.

The last point is a valid point, but isn’t selling nuts just a job like any other job? These women sell nuts and not their bodies! And isn’t it reassuring that you can actually survive and support your family when you don’t have an education (and the reasons for that don’t necessarily have to be laziness)? And that you don’t need to become a prostitute in order avoid working yourself to death in a factory? There is nothing unethical about this kind of work. In the end, the betel nut beauties are in no way different from models using their bodies to sell cars, cosmetics, clothes and so on and they use the marketing strategy sex sells just like any other business in the world.

And the moral of this truely cracking story? You can use sex to basically sell anything. Even nuts.

With thanks to mirjami

With thanks to Ardelle Odartey