Sex has been used to advertise products almost from the dawn of advertising. It’s thought that an 1885 soap advert was the first to use erotic imagery in an attempt to make subliminal connections between a product and sex. Sex is now very commonly used to sell products, from intimate ones like perfume and clothing to aspirational ones such as cars. It’s also used more bafflingly to sell other types of product, from fizzy drinks to tires.
But the advertising truism that sexually stimulating messaging wins consumer engagement doesn’t always hold up.
Research suggests that the relationship between sexually-charged ads and consumer attention is less straightforward than first thought. For brands trying to win customers in new markets, different cultural attitudes toward sex can compromise the intended messaging. All in all, things are more complex than you might think.
Changing gender roles
The increasing economic empowerment and the changing role of women in society have led to a key change in the use of sex in advertising.
For a long time, men tended to be the intended targets of advertising for products including jewelry, cars and vacuum cleaners – or at least advertisers assumed they were. Women are now increasingly making these purchases and advertisers are slowly starting to recognize they are key decision makers for many purchases.
Research at the Carlson School indicates that it’s not as simple as updating sexually appealing messaging in advertising to account for female buyers. Women tend to react badly to gratuitous sexual imagery in advertising – particularly if the products are cheap.
They tend to be more accepting of sexy advertising when the products were higher ticket items but seem to favor advertising where sex is shown in the context of a broader committed relationship. By contrast, male viewers aren’t affected by the relationship context sex is depicted in. Research in China also suggests that men and women need to be targeted differently by ads based on sexually appealing messages.
Although men may respond to sexual images, that doesn’t mean sex can be used to sell them anything – there does need to be some link to the product. Research by Ohio State University found that using too much sex (or violence) in ads actually diminishes advertising effectiveness. That’s because viewers overlook the advertising message because they’re distracted by what they’re seeing.
The generation gap
Sex is also a generational concern. Younger generations of consumers seem to want a personal connection with a brand more than they value sex appeal. Modern consumers seem to be able to see through advertising claims that products will increase their sexual appeal to assess whether a brand can add value to their lives or not.
The bar for what’s considered notably sexually engaging or erotically noteworthy is also set much higher than it has been in the past.
Availability of sexual imaging means ads that would have been considered provocative a few decades ago now barely raise an eyebrow. That 1885 soap ad showing the bare shoulders of actresses seems laughably prim to 21st-century audiences.
Modern audiences are also increasingly intolerant of ads that resort to stereotyping and sexism to make a point.
There’s a risk of a backlash but it’s more likely that audiences will just see brands using these dated tactics as outdated and irrelevant to their lives. Consumers expect brands to stand for something these days. Being sexy is not, by itself, enough.
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It’s a problem encountered by Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie brand that’s historically marketed itself using supermodels and glitzy catwalk events. With attention now focused on a much curvier aesthetic that’s more body positive, Victoria’s Secret’s use of conventionally attractive models is starting to look pretty outdated.
By contrast, singer Rihanna’s much-celebrated Fenty brand has taken a highly inclusive approach right from launch, using a much wider range of body shapes and ethnicities. The brand fares extremely well with young audiences, particularly among non-white groups.
America’s annual Superbowl sports event tends to be a key focus of advertising efforts as a large audience focuses on a single broadcast. Traditionally this has always consisted of pushing the envelope increasingly towards more suggestive sexual ads as society relaxes its mores. But in 2017 some commentators noted that ad themes for the event had shifted away from sexual messaging to instead dwell on more provocative themes – such as political activism.
In modern America, hot topic issues such as race are more provocative and engaging than sex.
It’s not just the West that’s wrestling with how it feels about sex in advertising. The major emerging markets of China and India are in many ways more conservative than the US or Europe, with lower tolerance for what’s shown on TV. If you’re trying to take an ad campaign to these audiences, it’s not just the language you’ll be translating but also adapting into an entirely different culture of sexual identity.
Sex can be used to sell very effectively in some markets. As society evolves, public tolerance for sexually appealing messaging and images continues to relax. But it’s not easy for those pushing the envelope to gauge what they can get away with.
Chinese censors are often inconsistent and it’s hard to predict which ads they will allow. Indian ad directors don’t seem to be able to sell sex in a way that makes it seem at all appealing. It seems there’s no market in the world where using sex in advertising is a straightforward matter making cultural sensitivity checks a critical part of any ad campaign that uses either sex or topics such as race or political activism to advertise products.