Sex in advertising

Sex in advertising 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 or, on some level, subliminal. 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 concept

Gender Advertisements,[1] 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. For example, companies including Spotify, AirBnB, Lynx and Amazon have used same-sex couples in adverts.[2] These adverts not only appeal more to same-sex couples, they also demonstrate that these companies are tolerant and available to a wide consumer base.

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.[3] 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.

Types of Sexual Advertising

Physical Attractiveness

The use of physically attractive models in advertising is a form of sex in advertising. Physical attractiveness can be conveyed through facial beauty, physique, hair, skin complexion as well as by the model's inferred personality. This form of sex in advertising is effective as it draws attention and influences the overall evaluation of the ad. Furthermore, such ads create an association between physical attractiveness and the product, sending a message to the consumer that buying it they will help them achieve that physique.[4] The use of physically attractive models can elicit sexual arousal from the viewer that is transferred onto the advertised product.[5]

Sexual Behaviour

Sex in advertising is also incorporated using hints of sexual behaviour. The latter is communicated by the models using flirtatious body language, open posture and making eye contact with the viewer. Sexual behaviour can also be displayed using several models interacting in a more or less sexual way. Sexual behaviour in advertising is used to arouse sexual interest from the viewer.[4] Research has shown that sexual arousal elicited by an advert subsequently affects the overall ad evaluation and the chances of future purchase.[5]

Sexual referents

Volkswagen advert for the "topless" Beetle Cabriolet

Sexual referents are a more implicit example of sex in advertising. Sex can be invoked in advertising using sexual double entendre or innuendos. The latter rely on the viewer to interpret them. They can be words or images that while not being explicitly sexual, trigger sexual thoughts from the viewer. Elements such as lighting, music, models’ behaviour and camera effects can contribute towards communicating implicit sexual meaning. Sexual referents are a powerful tool as they drive viewers to create sexual thoughts and interpretations of the product.[4]

An example of sexual referents is Volkswagen's campaign for the Beetle Cabriolet. The advert pixelates the non-existent roof to the car, similar to the pixilation that occurs when female's breasts are exposed in some forms of media. Volkswagen have a history of producing tongue-in-cheek adverts, and this one serves to compare their new convertible to a woman who goes topless at a beach. It implies the car is relaxed and fun, like someone who goes topless at a beach.

Betty Crocker cake mix advert using sexual embed technique

Sexual embeds

Sexual embeds are a controversial form of sex in advertising. They are elements that are detected as sexual information solely at the subconscious level. Sexual embeds can take the form of objects or words that connote sexual acts or genitalia. For example, a perfume bottle could mimic a phallic shape and its positioning could suggest sexual intercourse. Embeds unconsciously trigger sexual arousal in the consumer which drives motivation and goal directed behaviour such as purchase intention.[4]

An example of this technique is this cake mix advert from Betty Crocker. It appears the chocolate icing on the heel of the cake has been painted to look like female genitalia. Amongst millions who viewed the commercial, none will have noticed this detail but it would have been detected and interpreted at the subconscious level. The Betty Crocker ad was directed at women and put an emphasis on the sense of touch by using the words "moist". This advert creates a subconscious association between the product and sexual pleasure.[4]


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".

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.[6][7]

1926 US advertisement for "French" postcards

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.[8] 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[9] 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.[10]

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, 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.[11]

Marketing strategies centred around sex have been successful. Abercrombie & Fitch used sex to market their brand in a variety of ways, including store greeters dressed only in underwear, models working in store and topless models on the bags. Employees were hired based on physical attractiveness.[12] This strategy was aimed at teenagers and young adults, who are the most impressionable consumer group, and who have vast amounts of disposable money. During the late 1990s, the company produced a magazine/catalogue (magalog), featuring semi-nude or nude models. The magalog was a success, with A&F issuing over 1.5 million copies. Despite being somewhat paradoxical, the use of sexual branding raised their revenue from $85 million in 1993 to $1.35 billion in 2002.[13] Recently A&F have expressed that they will move away from sexual marketing, and focus on showcasing product and trends [14]

Sexuality in advertising is extremely effective at attracting the consumer's attention and once it has their attention, to remember the message. 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.[15]

Gender Differences

Recent research indicates that the use of sexual images of females in ads negatively affects women's interest.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19][20]

Further research [21] found that men have a positive attitude to sexual adverts, whereas women have a negative response to them. This was thought to be because women had lower average Sex drives than men. Another theory for this difference is that evolution has led to men to seek casual sex, contrary to women who value commitment and intimacy in the context of a sexual relationship.[22] In adverts sex tends to be represented in its own right and not as part of a relationship leading to the difference in responses. This theory is supported by research which found that women respond less negatively to sexual adverts when it is in the context of Gift giving from a man to a women, therefore when the sexuality of the advert is the context of commitment. Men respond more negatively to the sexual advert when it involves gift giving as it emphasizes them having to spend money in a relationship.[23] Further research found that even in men recall of the advert is worsened by sexual content, as they focus on breast and legs but not on the product.[24]

Cultural differences

In order to be consistent brands use standardised campaigns across various countries.[25] Cultural differences have been found in response to sexual adverts. A 2016 study by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) noted that 94.5% of South Korean high schoolers were familiar with sex-driven ads, 83.4% of adults thought such ads have negative influence on society, and 91.2% said there are too many of such ads. A KIAF official noted that government legislation aimed to reduce such ads is not effective due to its ambiguity.[26] Research has found that sex is used in adverts more in France than in the United States because they are more sexually liberated and so receptive to its use in advertising.[27]


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.[28]

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

Other early forms of sex appeal in advertising include 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.

Sex and soap

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.[29] 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.[30]

KamaSutra condoms in India

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.[31][32]


Nun and Priest kissing in a Benetton United Colours advert

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.[33]

Calvin Klein advert featuring Brooke Shields

Calvin Klein - Sex and jeans

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."[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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."[35]


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.[37]

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.[38] 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.[39]

"Riding Hard", part of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation's #loveyourcondom campaign

Historically, sex in advertising has focused on heterosexual gender roles, but there are increasing examples of sex being used to advertise to the LGBT community. The New Zealand Aids Foundation's Love Your Condom (LYC) campaign used provocative images of males alongside captions such as "Riding hard?", "Bear hunting?" and "Going deep?", followed by the hashtag #loveyourcondom.[40] It was hoped by using images explicitly directed towards homosexual men, their use of condoms would increase, which would help decrease rates of HIV transmission amongst gay and bisexual men. The campaign has been successful, with a 12% in new HIV infections among MSM in New Zealand.[41]


Use of sexual imagery in advertising has been criticized on various grounds. Religious Conservatives often consider it obscene or immodest. Some feminists and masculists claim it reinforces sexism by objectifying the individual. Increasingly, this argument has been complicated by growing use of androgynous and homoerotic themes in marketing.[42]

A controversial example of Sexual Advertising used in India on a road sign.

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.[43]

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.[44]

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.[45]


Sexual images of women which are shown in this form of advert have been found to lead men and women to put more importance on their role as a mate as well as their physical attractiveness, and value their intellect and general skills less.[46] Awareness of the sexism of this type of image in advertising has increased and is now policed more. One group that does this is the Advertising Women of New York. These adverts can lead to [[self-objectification]], which in turn can lead to shame disgust, appearance anxiety and eating disorders and depression. Adverts in media such as magazines with a Objectificatied images have been found to activate self-objectification.[47] This objectification has also been found in Men, and there has been an increase in sexual portrayal of men.[48]

See also


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