Sex in advertising

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Sex sells)
Jump to: navigation, search
Images of attractive women often appear in ads even without connection to the product being sold. This provocatively clad woman lends "sex appeal" to a 1921 ad for tire valve caps.

Sex in advertising or "sex sells" is the use of sex appeal in advertising to help sell a particular product or service. Sexually appealing imagery may or may not pertain to the product or service in question. Examples of sexually appealing imagery include nudity, pin-up girls, and muscular men.

The use of sex in advertising can be highly overt or extremely subtle. It ranges from relatively explicit displays of sexual acts and seductive behavior aimed at the viewer, to the use of basic cosmetics to enhance attractive features.


The earliest forms of sex appeal in advertising are woodcuts and illustrations of attractive women (often unclothed from the waist up) adorning posters, signs, and ads for saloons, tonics, and tobacco. In several notable cases, sex in advertising has been claimed as the reason for increased consumer interest and sales. The earliest known use of sex in advertising is by the Pearl Tobacco brand in 1871, which featured a naked maiden on the package cover. In 1885, W. Duke & Sons inserted trading cards into cigarette packs that featured sexually provocative starlets. Duke grew to become the leading American cigarette brand by 1890.[1]

1916 Ladies' Home Journal version of the famous ad by Helen Lansdowne Resor at J. Walter Thompson Agency

Sex and soap[edit]

Woodbury's Facial Soap, a woman's beauty bar, was almost discontinued in 1911. The soap's sales decline was reversed, however, with ads containing images of romantic couples and promises of love and intimacy for those using the brand.[2] Jovan Musk Oil, introduced in 1971, was promoted with sexual entendre and descriptions of the fragrance's sexual attraction properties. As a result, Jovane, Inc.'s revenue grew from $1.5 million in 1971 to $77 million by 1978.[3]

KamaSutra condoms in India[edit]

In 1991, J.K. Chemicals Group asked the Bombay office of Lintas Bombay to develop a campaign for a new condom brand. The problem was that in the late 1940s, the Nehru government had launched a major population limitation program to reduce India's birthrate. The program was very heavy-handed, using coercion, and demanding that men use condoms. The product therefore signified an oppressive governmental intrusion. The agency head hit on the idea of a pleasurable condom, “So when the user hears the brand name, he says, "Wow. It's a turn on. Not a turn off." A brainstorming session hit on the name “KamaSutra”, which refers to an ancient Sanskrit treatise on lovemaking and the sculptures at temples that illustrate the positions involved. The term was known to well-educated Indians, and that was the intended audience. Correctly predicting the huge impact the ad campaign would have, the agency purchased all the advertising space in the popular glamour magazine Debonair and filled it with erotic images of Bollywood actors and actresses promoting KamaSutra condoms. A television commercial followed featuring a steamy shower scene. The television ad was censored but the print campaign proved highly successful.[4][5]


The Italian clothing company Benetton gained worldwide attention in the late 20th century for its saucy advertising, inspired by its art director Oliviero Toscani. He started with multicultural themes, tied together under the campaign "United Colors of Benetton" then became increasingly provocative with interracial groupings, and unusual sexual images, such as a nun kissing a priest.[6]

Calvin Klein - Sex and jeans[edit]

Calvin Klein of Calvin Klein Jeans has been at the forefront of this movement to use sex in advertising, having said, "Jeans are about sex. The abundance of bare flesh is the last gasp of advertisers trying to give redundant products a new identity." Calvin Klein's first controversial jeans advertisement showed a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, in Calvin Klein jeans, saying, "Want to know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing."[7] Calvin Klein has also received media attention for its controversial advertisements in the mid-1990s. Several of Calvin Klein's advertisements featured images of teenage models, some "who were reportedly as young as 15" in overly sexual and provocative poses.[8] Although Klein insisted that these advertisements were not pornographic, some considered the campaign as a form of "soft porn" or "kiddie porn" that was exploitative, shocking, and suggestive. In 1999, Calvin Klein was the subject of more controversy when it aired advertisements of young children who were only wearing the brand's underwear. This "kiddie underwear ad campaign" was pulled only one day after it aired as a result of public outlash.[9] A spokesperson from Calvin Klein insisted that these ads were intended "to capture the same warmth and spontaneity that you find in a family snapshot."[8]

The concept[edit]

1926 US advertisement for "French" postcards

Gender Advertisements,[10] a 1979 book by Canadian social anthropologist, Erving Goffman is series of studies of visual communication and how gender representation in advertising. communicates subtle, underlying messages about the sexual roles projected by masculine and feminine images in advertising. The book is a visual essay about sex roles in advertising and the differences, as well as the symbolism implied in the depictions of men and women in advertising.

When couples are used in an advertisement, the sex-roles played by each also sends out messages. The interaction of the couple may send out a message of relative dominance and power, and may stereotype the roles of one or both partners. Usually the message is very subtle, and sometimes advertisements attract interest by changing stereotypical roles.


A model promotes Jägermeister, 2006

Gallup & Robinson, an advertising and marketing research firm, has reported that in more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic to be a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace, "...although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique ... handle with care ... seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing." This research has led to the popular idea that "sex sells".[citation needed]

In contemporary mainstream consumer advertising (e.g., magazines, network and cable television), sex is present in promotional messages for a wide range of branded goods. Ads feature provocative images of well-defined women (and men) in revealing outfits and postures selling clothing, alcohol, beauty products, and fragrances. Advertisers such as Calvin Klein, Victoria's Secret, and Pepsi use these images to cultivate a ubiquitous sex-tinged media presence. Also, sexual information is used to promote mainstream products not traditionally associated with sex. For example, Dallas Opera's recent reversal of its declining ticket sales has been attributed to the marketing of the more lascivious parts of its performances.[11][12]

As many consumers and professionals think, sex is used to grab a viewer's attention but this is a short-term success. Whether using sex in advertising is effective depends on the product.[13] About three-quarters of advertisements using sex to sell the product are communicating a product-related benefit, such as the product making its users more sexually attractive.

Nonetheless, there are some studies that contradict the theory that sex is an effective tool for improving finances and gathering attention. A study from 2009 found that there was a negative correlation between nudity and sexuality in movies, and box office performance and critical acclaim.[14] A 2005 research by MediaAnalyzer has found that less than 10% of men recalled the brand of sexual ads, compared to more than 19% of non sexual ads; a similar result was found in women (10.8% vs. 22.3%). It is hypothesized by that survey, that this is a result of a general numbing caused by over use of sexual stimuli[15] in advertising.

In another experimental study conducted on 324 undergraduate college students, Brad Bushman examined brand recall for neutral, sexual or violent commercials embedded in neutral, sexual or violent TV programs. He found that brand recall was higher for participants who saw neutral TV programs and neutral commercials versus those who saw sexual or violent commercials embedded in sexual or violent TV programs.[16]

Some sexually oriented advertisements provoke a backlash against the product, as in the1995, Calvin Klein advertising campaign (see section on Calvin Klein, above) that showed teenage models in provocative poses wearing Calvin Klein underwear and jeans. The ads were withdrawn when parents and child welfare groups threatened to protest and Hudson stores did not want their stores associated with the ads. It was reported that the US Justice Department was investigating the ad campaign for possible violations of federal child pornography and exploitation laws. The Justice Department subsequently decided not to prosecute Calvin Klein for these alleged violations.[17]

Using sex may attract one market demographic while repelling another. The overt use of sexuality to promote breast cancer awareness, through fundraising campaigns like "I Love Boobies" and "Save the Ta-tas", is effective at reaching young women,[citation needed] who are at low risk of developing breast cancer, but angers and offends some breast cancer survivors and older women, who are at higher risk of developing breast cancer.[18]

Recent research indicates that the use of sexual images of women in ads negatively affects women's interest.[19] A study from the University of Minnesota in 2013 of how printed ads with sexual content affects women clearly showed that women are not attracted except in the case of products being luxurious and expensive.[20] Besides alienating women there is a serious risk that the audience in general will reduce support to organisations that uses the sexual images of women without a legitimate reason.[21] Other studies have found that sex in television is extremely overrated and does not sell products in ads. Unless sex is related to the product (such as beauty, health or hygiene products) there is not clear effect.[22][23]

Sexuality in advertising is extremely effective at attracting the consumer’s attention and once it has their attention, to remember the message.[citation needed] This solves the greatest problem in advertising of getting the potential buyer to look at and remember the advertisement. However the introduction of attraction and especially sexuality into an ad often distracts from the original message and can cause an adverse effect of the consumer wanting to take action.[24]


In the 21st century, the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in consumer-oriented print advertising has become almost commonplace. Ads for jeans, perfumes and many other products have featured provocative images that were designed to elicit sexual responses from as large a cross section of the population as possible, to shock by their ambivalence, or to appeal to repressed sexual desires, which are thought to carry a stronger emotional load. Increased tolerance, more tempered censorship, emancipatory developments and increasing buying power of previously neglected appreciative target groups in rich markets (mainly in the West) have led to a marked increase in the share of attractive flesh 'on display'.

Ad Age, a magazine delivering news, analysis, and data on marketing and media, published a list of Top 100 most effective advertising of the century, out of the 100, only 8 involved use of sex.[25]

Unruly Media's viral video tracker lists the Top-20 most viewed car commercial viral videos. Only 1 uses sex, while the No.1 spot was held by VW's "The Force" ad.[26] The overall top-spot (across all product segments), was held by VW's "Fun Theory" campaign, the most viewed viral video as of October 2011.

In international perspective, a 2008 comparison of nudity in television advertising in Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States reveals that China and the United States have the most demure ads, while Germany and Thailand exposed more of the female body. There is little variation in male undress.[27]


Use of sexual imagery in advertising has been criticized on various grounds. Religious Conservatives often consider it obscene or immodest. Some feminists and masculists[citation needed] claim it reinforces sexism by objectifying the individual. Increasingly, this argument has been complicated by growing use of androgynous and homoerotic themes in marketing.[28]

Advertisers trying to reach low-income and less educated men frequently use hypermasculine stereotypes, such as depicting men as only being capable of a limited range of behaviors, such as being physically violent or sexually aggressive.[29]

Since the late 1970s, many researchers have determined that advertisements depict women as having less social power than men, but the ways in which females are displayed as less powerful than men have evolved over time. In modern times, advertisements have displayed women’s expanding roles in the professional realm and importance in business backgrounds. However, as this change occurred there has been a substantial increase in the number of images that showcase women as less sexually powerful than men and as objects of men’s desire.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Porter, 1971
  2. ^ Account Histories, 1926
  3. ^ Sloan & Millman, 1979
  4. ^ William M. O'Barr, "Advertising in India," Advertising & Society Review (2008) 9#3
  5. ^ William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Duke University Press, 2003)
  6. ^ Mark Tungate, Adland: A Global History of Advertising (2007)) pp 146-49
  7. ^ Sischy, Ingrid. "Vanity Fair Calvin Klein". Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  8. ^ a b Calvin Klein: A Case Study
  9. ^ Peters, Robert. "Kiddie Porn" Controversy"
  10. ^
  11. ^ Chism, 1999
  12. ^ Tom Reichert (2013-01-30). "Sex in advertising research: A review of content, effects, and functions of sexual information in consumer advertising". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  13. ^ "DOES SEX IN ADVERTISING WORK?". Branding Strategy Insider. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  14. ^ Anemone Cerridwen, Dean Keith Simonton (2009). "Sex Doesn’t Sell—Nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  15. ^ "Sex in ads does not sell". 2005-10-25. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  16. ^ Bushman, Brad (2007). "That was a great commercial, but what were they selling? Effects of violence and sex on memory for products in television commercials.". Journal of Applied Social Psychology 37 (8): 1784–1796. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00237.x. 
  17. ^ "Justice Department Plans No Charges Over Calvin Klein Ads". Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  18. ^ Szabo, Lisa (30 October 2012). "Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients". USA Today. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  19. ^ "Women find sexually explicit ads unappealing—unless the price is right". 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  20. ^ "Sex doesn't sell? This study into women's response to raunchy advertising starts wrong and gets worse". 2013-12-10. Retrieved 2013-12-10. 
  21. ^ "Study: Does sex always sell?". 2013-12-19. Retrieved 2013-12-19. 
  22. ^ "Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex". 2012-06-05. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  23. ^ "Violence and Sex in Television Programs Do Not Sell Products in Advertisements" (PDF). 2012-06-05. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  24. ^ "Sexual Content and Advertising Effectiveness: Comments on Belch Et Al. (1981) and Caccavale Et Al. (1981) by Robert S. Baron". Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  25. ^ Garfield, Bob (29 March 1999). "Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century". Ad Age. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  26. ^ "Top-20 most popular car commercials". Unruly Media. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  27. ^ Michelle R. Nelson and Hye-Jin Paek, "Nudity of female and male models in primetime TV advertising across seven countries," International Journal of Advertising (2008) 27#5 pp 715-744
  28. ^ "Early use of a homoerotic symbol in advertising: Budweiser beer ad based on Zeus' abduction of Ganymede". Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  29. ^ Hess, Amanda (1 March 2013). "Advertising masculinity: Why ads in magazines like Playboy depict men as violent, horny, and angry.". Slate. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  30. ^ Stankiewicz and Rosselli, Julie and Francine (2008). "Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements". Sex Roles (58.7): 579–589. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9359-1. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Garcia, Eli, and Kenneth CC Yang. "Consumer responses to sexual appeals in cross-cultural advertisements." Journal of International Consumer Marketing 19#2 (2006): 29-52.
  • Reichert, Tom, and Jacqueline Lambiase, eds. Sex in advertising: Perspectives on the erotic appeal (Routledge, 2014)
  • Sherman, Claire, and Pascale Quester. "The influence of product/nudity congruence on advertising effectiveness." Journal of Promotion Management 11#2-3 (2006): 61-89.
  • Streitmatter, Roger. Sex sells!: The media's journey from repression to obsession (Basic Books, 2004)

External links[edit]