A lot has changed in advertising since the Madison Avenue days. Not only has the majority of marketing gone digital, but it’s more tailored to its audience than ever before. Yet, some things never change.
Despite massive advances in the digital marketing industry, creatives still use sexual imagery in their ads. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, (or on the polar opposite end of the current-events spectrum, Hugh Hefner’s death) one might guess that the amount of erotic content in adverts would either become taboo or lose some of its appeal, but the primitive promotional strategy seems to be hanging on.
It should be noted that the point of this article is not to judge sexually-suggestive marketing material on any moral or ethical grounds, but rather to highlight how it’s used, why it’s had enduring success, the psychological and cultural pros and cons of this advertising method, and what search engines and social media platforms are doing about explicit ad content.
How Is Sex Used to Boost Sales?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but pop culture does its best to paint that portrait for us. Everything from Perrier Sparkling Water to Liquid Plumr has tried to make their products sexy.
Typically, if there are actors and actresses in a commercial, their bodies are just shy of unobtainable, their hair is elegant and sleek even if they’re supposed to appear “disheveled,” and their skin is as smooth and clear as a summer sky. However, this imagery has little to do with the product or service itself.
In this case, advertisers are pandering to the basic instincts of human behavior. As outlined by Robert F. Port, Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, there are six overarching human instincts:
Other experts contend that there are only three main instincts, sometimes referred to as the dark triad: self-preservation, sex, and greed. Many individuals may argue that these biological imperatives are due to heteronormativity and sociality pressures—which very well may be true—however, it does seem like sex is a fundamental element of human behavior, and therefore, a useful strategy for advertising.
The Inception of Sex in Advertising
According to World Heritage Encyclopedia, the earliest forms of sex appeal in advertising came in the form of woodcuts and illustrations of attractive women, often unclothed or scantily clad. In 1871, Pearl Tobacco was one of the first brands to use sexual content in their advertisements. Their packages touted an image of a “naked maiden.” Soon after in 1885, Duke & Sons, a cigarette brand of the time, started inserting trading cards with “sexually provocative starlets” into their cigarette packs.
The Line between Provocative and Dangerous
But sex in advertising didn’t stop with cigarette companies capitalizing on innuendos like Tipalet’s “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere,” or Newport’s vivid “Alive with pleasure” ads that were virtually toppling over with suggestive imagery. Because sex has thrived throughout the ages by continually pushing the limits of social acceptability, it’s led some brands into dangerous territory.
For example, Calvin Klein Jeans is perhaps the most notoriously sexualized brand in the fashion industry. In fact, their 2010 billboards featuring model Lara Stone, surrounded by three men and cornered within a chain-link fence, was banned in Australia for “suggesting rape and violence,” according to the Herald Sun.
However, Calvin Klein wasn’t the only brand to wind up in hot water for a highly-sexualized marketing strategy. Dolce & Gabbana enraged the National Organization for Women with their 2007 Esquire magazine ad that featured a women getting held down by one man, while another four surround her fiendishly. This advert was quickly pulled due to its visceral combination of violence and sexual content.
Here is another problem: it’s not just mature audiences that these ads are targeting. A study published by The Journal of Consumer Affairs found that ads targeted toward young adults were 65% more likely to contain provocatively dressed models and a staggering 128% more likely to contain sexual behavior than those for older adults.
Does Sex Actually Sell?
While the popular axiom would have you think otherwise, sex doesn’t always sell. In fact, researchers from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that brands that advertise using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than those that advertised using nonsexual ads.
Moreover, this study suggests there were no significant effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions. In truth, as the intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased.
However, researchers did discover that context is key. They found that when programing content and ad content were congruent, such as a sexually suggestive ad and a “sex comedy,” memory improved and buying intentions increased.
But if sex doesn’t sell, than why is it so pervasive in advertising? Afterall, in a study conducted by Tom Reichert, Head of the Advertising and Public Relations Department at the University of Georgia, research indicated that the rate of ads that used sexual content jumped from 15% to 27% between 1983 and 2003. However, in the 2014 edition of Reichert’s book, Sex in Advertising, he suggests the number is closer to 20%.
That is still a hefty amount of sexual content, especially when considering that the American Marketing Association found that the average consumer is exposed to up to 10,000 brand messages a day! Admittedly that seems high, but even if we cut that number in half—and we take the lower statistic from Reichert—that still leaves 1,000 sexually suggestive messages per day.
In an interview with Business News Daily, Reichert notes, "Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective… People are hard-wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.”
Reichert too, found that context was a critical element to advertising. Much like how the APA found that programming and commercials should align topically and thematically, sex is primarily useful in selling “low-risk impulse purchases,” hence the overt use for cigarette, alcohol, clothing, and entertainment brands.
Reichert found that sex was far less effective when selling “high-risk” products such as banking services, appliances, and vehicles. Considering both the APA’s and Reichert’s research, it does seem like suggestive content has sent the revenue of some brands skyrocketing.
Take the infamous Calvin Klein. They’ve continued to grow their annual revenue from $1 billion in 2005 to a staggering 8.2 billion, according to their 2016 annual report. Moreover, marketers look to Victoria’s Secret, a business that turned a handful of lingerie boutiques into a corporate enterprise raking in north of 1.15 billion dollars in 2016, as released in their 2016 earnings statement.
The Downside of Sex
Although sex can catch our attention, there are a variety of problems—aside from simply offending people—that brands should consider. First, sexual advertisements tend to reinforce stereotypes. Whether it’s a ditsy women or a damsel in distress, commercials often portray women as less powerful than men.
Recent 2017 research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women were 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen than their male counterparts. Moreover, men are 89% more likely to be depicted as smart in comparison to women.
Then there is a major issue of objectification. It turns out that even today, women are still five times more likely to be shown in revealing clothing. However, it’s not nudity that seems to be the problem, it’s about context, clothed or not.
Research by the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology suggests that objectified learning, cultural entrainment, and exposure to sexualized bodies can “shift” [our] cognitive mechanisms from configural to [a] more part-based analytical kind (more object-like as opposed to person-like), leading to objectification.
What Works Better Than Sex?
Sex does sell, the numbers are there to prove it—but mostly to a certain demographic of men. Guys, we’re not selling you short, it’s just that research has time and again proved what everyone already knows.
Case in point, a substantial imperial review by Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), found that, across a multitude of different measures, men have been shown to have a significantly stronger sex drive. In agreement with CWRU’s conclusion, the University of Illinois found that, on average, males liked ads with sexual appeal, and females disliked them.
Of course, it’s important to know your audience and your product. If what you're selling is meant to be sexy (i.e. underwear, perfume, alcohol, etc.) than by all means, advertise it as such.
However, if that’s what a particular audience wants to see, remember that they have access to that content with just the click of a button. So you have to ask yourself, why try to compete with the plethora of online sites that make sex their sole business?
Sexual Content on Social Media
Social media is littered with sexual content. In fact, Tech Crunch found that it is relatively easy to find straight-up porn on some of the most popular platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and of course, Tumblr. A lot more suggestive content gets posted on social media as it can be justified as art and expression. However, actually advertising with sexual content is a different story.
Facebook and Instagram’s advertising policy requires there to be no adult content in your ads. This includes nudity (even if implied), depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative. This policy bans nudity even for artistic and educational sponsored posts.
Interestingly, Facebook’s advertising policy has zero tolerance for “images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chest, even if not explicitly sexual in nature.” Alas, if you’re selling motorcycle chaps, tell your product photographer to zoom out a bit.
Google also has a strict adult content policy when it comes to AdWords and their Ad Network. Sexual content cannot be used to promote on app ads and app extensions, consumer ratings annotations, dynamic display ads, gmail ads, and other ad platforms. Moreover, Google will not track “sensitive interest categories” to target their ads such as personal hardships, identity and belief, and you guessed it, sexual interest.
On the flipside, celebrity influencers have seemed to find a loophole in the sexual content arena. Take a quick scroll through the celebrity Instagram feeds of Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez, or Kylie Jenner and you’ll likely be confused about which website you just landed on.
Where to Take Your Brand
Sexual content in the age of digital marketing is alive and well as far as organic content is concerned, but you’re not going to run a pay-per-click campaign with that strategy. While innuendos can be funny, suggestive themes can be stylish, and sex can sell, it’s important that marketers consider their audience carefully so as not to offend potential customers nor be provocative for the sake of publicity.
While using sex in advertising can be a successful tool for drumming up sales, it can also have negative consequences for both your reputation and our culture. For that reason, get to know your brand, what it stands for, and who your audience is.
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