Sex and Advertising: the raging debate
Few topics in marketing prompt as much interest as sex in advertising. Salacious ads can generate hundreds of blog posts and coverage from traditional media such as CNN and ABC News. Sometimes the advertisement leads to increased sales, and other times it results in consumer complaints and a swift apology as the ad is promptly pulled off the air. Regardless of the result, advertisers have used sexual imagery and themes to promote their products since the earliest days of marketing and will continue to do so in a quest for sales.
Jump to…Top of page1. Definition2. Effectiveness3. History and Prevalence4. Criticisms
Top of page
3. History and Prevalence
Sex in advertising is often defined as “sexuality in the form of nudity, sexual imagery, innuendo, and double entendre employed as an advertising tool for a wide variety of products” (Courtney and Whipple, 1983, p. 103). Research indicates that the vast majority of sexual content in advertising consists of images of sexually appealing models – models who adhere to ideals of Western beauty standards (Reichert, 2003). Often the models are clothed in a revealing manner and posed or behaving – either by themselves or with other models – to stimulate sexual thoughts and feelings within viewers (see Figure 1). Lighting, pacing, editing, setting, and other aspects of the prevailing tone contribute to the sexual nature of an advertisement. Verbal elements also contribute to sexual meaning such as sexually suggestive phrases and intonation, or headlines with double meaning that may seem innocuous until paired with a provocative image. Figure 1. Nudity is clearly present in this marketing image for youth clothier Abercrombie & Fitch. (Reproduced by permission of Sam Shahid).
Sexual content within an ad may or may not be relevant to the product category or advertised brand message. For example, some ads feature images of scantily clad women or men making eye contact with the viewer but with no logical connection to the advertised product. A Carl’s Jr. commercial aired in 2005, for instance, featured a swimsuit clad Paris Hilton seductively washing a Bentley and taking a bite from a hamburger. More often, however, sexual content is central to the brand’s message. For example, advertising can tell consumers that the brand will enhance their beauty or chances for romantic success. Commercials aired in the 1970s for Prince Matchabelli‘s Wind Song perfume positioned the fragrance as a romantic attractant with the memorable jingle, “I can’t seem to forget you. Your Wind Song stays on my mind.” In a typical commercial, a women sprays a napkin with Wind Song for the waiter to deliver to her boyfriend across the restaurant. Immediately, her boyfriend appears and bestows