Open Access Articles- Top Results for Sex in advertising

Sex in advertising

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, 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 cigarette brand[where?] by 1890.[1]

Woodbury's Facial Soap, a woman's beauty bar, was almost discontinued in 1910. 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]

The advertisements for Clairol hair dye during the 1970s, which asked the double entendre question, "Does she... or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure", were another famous use of sex to sell products.[4]

Calvin Klein has been at the forefront of this movement, 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."[5]

Consumer culture

Near the beginning of the twentieth century, first-world society outside of career exercise[clarification needed] became deeply involved in the consumption of goods as opposed to production, meaning that people began to pursue material goods with the goal of fulfilling a general desire to own the item rather than for later use. The sum of this ideal in the population comprise the majority of so-called consumers.[6]

Consumer culture actually impresses on the individual an egotistic drive to consume as a facet of cultural acceptance and self-actualization, which means people are constantly pursuing several types of gratification through the acquisition of potentially desirable items rather than more conventional means. In this way, the consumerism can manifest in individuals in such ways as: impulsive financial expenditure, association of material possessions with social fitness, and habitual acquisition. At the root of this phenomenon, and the advent of habitual consumption in modernistic society.

Taylorism, which introduced analytical study and controlled adjustment of workflow with the purpose of fostering economic growth, coupled with the institution of scientific management in the industrial workforce, engendered a large increase in productivity during the mid-to-late twentieth century, bringing substantially more goods to market than ever before. Further, as technology improved, the ease with which a product could be advertised greatly increased, encouraging businesses to invest in the efficacy of advertisements as a whole. As a result of this investment, consumers were gradually enticed to lend their eyes and ears to advertisers not merely in the appropriate time and place, but at all hours of the day, in previously unprecedented locations.

To compound this increased exposure to advertisement in daily life, advancements in other fields of technology stood to increase the sum-total leisure time afforded most consumers per week, shortening the length of commutes and reducing the difficulty and time required to complete various types of work. This decrease in the time it takes the average worker to complete the same tasks would often leave workers idle during timeframes previously occupied by work or rest, inciting a willingness to invest time and money in order to prevent stagnation. The popularization of increasingly trivial products and activities during this downtime catalyzed the explosion of consumer culture in modern times.[7][8]

Gradually, the public consensus on the nature of shopping slowly shifted as people no longer considered shopping a conscious, needs-driven activity, but rather an intrinsic feature of standard urban living; shopping became a societal ritual available to complete 24 hours per day, the time between sessions mitigated solely by the fluctuation of an individual's income. To reinforce this constant and inexorable reality of consumption, the average consumer is in near constant contact with engaging and provocative advertising through all forms of media that make use of a wide range of other motivational tools, most of which combine product placement with an appeal to other facets of human culture that may have little to do with the product at all.

Excluding more complex manipulation of the market through lengthy and subversive processes like operant conditioning, some of the most popular and/or efficient forms of advertising include appeals made to morality, contextual humor, and sexual drive, also known as libido.

Consumer identity

Cultural capital the term used by Pierre Bourdieu, indicates the association of non-financial assets (e.g., material goods) with the power to build and differentiate one's social identity as relative to others of one's class. Often the type and amount of cultural capital possessed by an individual is an indication of self-identification as well as social position. When the positivity of an individual's self-perception is compromised, the consumption of specific goods can serve to mitigate detrimental effects and help to stabilize identity.[6]

In Aaron T. Beck’s theory, the significance of social identity or work status are relevant to the processes of modernization, which is a traditional factor in identity. Perception of others is defined in relation to oneself, and the modernity of an individual in relation to society as a whole is a deciding factor in said individual's social identity.

As industry and career placement opportunities shift in time, many people are subjected to revisions in the standard, losing jobs for which they may have been well-qualified. Such stimuli can foster doubt and uncertainty in an individual and lower their overall self-esteem. This disruptive sense of uncertainty gives rise to a need to exert control over one's life, often in the form of consumption, in order to re-affirm the individuality and identity of the self.

The appearance of consumer-oriented goods more prominently throughout the economy can also be seen as an embodiment of the change in buyer-preference that has accompanied modernity. However, this change in consumption is also driven by the increased frequency of self-comparison and self-evaluation in individuals of recent decades. Lasch[who?] believes that modern society is too concerned with self-image, both physical and social, arguing that consumer culture also embodies a specific form of cultural narcissism. A prevailing facet of modern life is the need to fully and in most cases, and in some cases, instantly impress the nature of one's physical identity upon one's peers; thus, in modern societies, the expression of self-identity is already inextricably tied with physical expression.

In the face of such significant value being associated with physical imagery, the importance of maintaining one's physical appearance in such societies becomes universally recognizable. Furthermore, the promotion of such ideal images relates to the formation of cosmetic ideology, modifying societal beauty standards to corroborate popular imagery. The idealization of the body has altered what people value and with which pursuits the population can identify, glorifying the utilization of physically (sexually) appealing imagery as effective propaganda in the field of public marketing.[6]

The concept

Sex in advertising builds on the premise that people are curious about sexuality and that experience in marketing has been that sexuality sells products. From a marketing point of view, sexuality can have biological, emotional/physical or spiritual aspects. The biological aspect of sexuality refers to the reproductive mechanism as well as the basic biological drive that exists in all species, which is hormonally controlled. The emotional or physical aspect of sexuality refers to the bond that exists between individuals, and is expressed through profound feelings or physical manifestations of emotions of love, trust, and caring. There is also a spiritual aspect of sexuality of an individual or as a connection with others. Advertisers may and do use the various aspects of sexuality in advertisements.

When sexuality is used in advertising, certain values and attitudes towards sex are necessarily 'sold' along with a product. In advertising terms, this is called "the concept". The message may be that "innocence is sexy" (as used by Calvin Klein when it uses young people in provocative poses), or that link pain and violence with sexiness and glamour (as used by Versace), or that women enjoy being dominated, or that women come with a product (e.g. in the advertisement for Budweiser Beer), or that the use of a certain product is naughty but legal, or that use of a certain product will make the user more attractive to the opposite sex, and many other messages.

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.


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.[9][10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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 sexual stimuli.[13]

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 found 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.[14]

Some sexually oriented advertisements provoke a backlash against the product. In 1995, Calvin Klein's advertising campaign 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.[15]

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.[16]

Recent research indicates that the use of sexual images of women in ads negatively affects women's interest.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20][21]

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 advertisement to be remembered. 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.[22]


Over the past two decades,[which?] the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in consumer-oriented print advertising has become almost commonplace.

In recent years[when?] 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 published a list of Top 100 most effective advertising of the century, out of the 100, only 8 involved use of sex.[4]

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.[23] 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.


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.[24]

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.[25]

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.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Porter, 1971
  2. ^ Account Histories, 1926
  3. ^ Sloan & Millman, 1979
  4. ^ a b Garfield, Bob (29 March 1999). "Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century". Ad Age. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  5. ^ Sischy, Ingrid. "Vanity Fair Calvin Klein". Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  6. ^ a b c Howson, Alexandra (2004). "The body in consumer culture". title missing 29: 94–95. 
  7. ^ Giddens, 1991
  8. ^ Veblen, Thorstein (1994). Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture. The theory of Leisure class. New York: Dover. 
  9. ^ Chism, 1999
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ "DOES SEX IN ADVERTISING WORK?". Branding Strategy Insider. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ "Sex in ads does not sell". 2005-10-25. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ "Justice Department Plans No Charges Over Calvin Klein Ads". Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  16. ^ Szabo, Lisa (30 October 2012). "Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients". USA Today. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  17. ^ "Women find sexually explicit ads unappealing—unless the price is right". 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  18. ^ "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. 
  19. ^ "Study: Does sex always sell?". 2013-12-19. Retrieved 2013-12-19. 
  20. ^ "Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex". 2012-06-05. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  21. ^ "Violence and Sex in Television Programs Do Not Sell Products in Advertisements" (PDF). 2012-06-05. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  22. ^ "Sexual Content and Advertising Effectiveness: Comments on Belch Et Al. (1981) and Caccavale Et Al. (1981) by Robert S. Baron". Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  23. ^ "Top-20 most popular car commercials". Unruly Media. Retrieved 2015-03-31. 
  24. ^ "Early use of a homoerotic symbol in advertising: Budweiser beer ad based on Zeus' abduction of Ganymede". Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Stankiewicz and Rosselli, Julie and Francine (2008). "Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements". Sex Roles (58.7): 579–589. 

External links