Does Sex Still Sell?

How the narrative is evolving towards sexual empowerment


Once upon a time, not so long ago we would see naked women surrounded by men to sell a perfume or Victoria Secret Angels being celebrated for their proportions instead of who they are - doesn’t sound appealing does it?


A New Wave of Selling Sex


The use of sex in marketing has been a constant ever since we can remember; Pearl Tobacco’s 1871 “maiden” label is one of the first known uses of sexualisation in marketing, kickstarting one of the most used tactics in the marketing game. However, recent research by Wikipedia suggests that...

“Sexually appealing imagery used for marketing does not need to pertain to the product or service but merely evoke feelings that create a positive association and entice a customer to make a purchase.”

Emotional marketing is at the forefront of brand strategy, aspiring to establish real connections with consumers after we recognised the power of authentic connectivity throughout lockdown.

The recent shift in socio-cultural attitudes is challenging brands to move away from this ‘sex sells’ marketing mentality and instead look for honest, open, and real representations of men and women across the world to develop authentic consumer connections.


The awareness of sexual injustice, inequality and discrimination in modern society has been awakened by the #MeToo movement, backed by people from all walks of life to change societal attitudes towards women.


Brands across the globe worked to meet the new needs of consumers; Victoria Secret have replaced their iconic Angels with 7 influential women who are famous for their achievements instead of their measurements. The seven consist of Megan Rapinoe, US footballer and gender equality campaigner; Priyanka Chopra Jonas, an Indian actor and tech investor and Adut Akech, a refugee and mental wellness supporter. Victoria Secret’s 180-degree shift towards more representative and real people of influence to connect with real consumer desires is a clear indication that sex doesn’t sell like it used to.


The narrative is changing.


Calvin Klein is known for selling sex, from their infamous 90’s advert featuring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss to Justin Bieber’s 2015 campaign, each campaign aimed to send a message that ‘you can look like this too if you buy Calvin’s’ but in the modern era of Calvin Klein, they are changing the way they sell sex. Consumer attitudes are becoming more diverse and authentic, they want to be sexually empowered rather than seen as an object of affection.



So, Why is the Narrative Changing?


There’s no denying that sex grabs our attention, it’s a seemingly taboo topic that everyone yet no one talks about. Tom Reichart, the head of the UGA department of Advertising and PR argues that...

“Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hardwired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.”

Marketing campaigns put sex front and centre but grabbing our attention with pure sex appeal doesn’t cut it anymore.

We seek relatability, meaning and authenticity.


The narrative is changing due to the growing influencer and social media community. It’s becoming more and more illustrative of the world we live in, meaning we see people who look like us and begin to recognise our beauty through reality rather than model shots in perfect lighting for an ad campaign. We recognise our value and demand it from the brands we shop from.

If sex is to sell, it needs to be empowering, uplifting and relatable to the target audience.



The Future of Selling Sex


The growing dependency on influencer marketing tactics in 2022 means that we will continue to be exposed to the ‘highlight reels’ of our lives but also the raw, unedited, and authentic side of life that some influencers choose to empower society with.


There is a growing transparency across social media, we recognise that our social media accounts are simply highlight reels of our lives showing the best of any situation, but this is changing. Younger generations are calling out the social media glaze that coats the lens we see life though and challenging the unrealistic expectations of people across the globe, instead they seek real people who show every element of the sexuality spectrum.


This demand for authentic representation and inclusivity is continuing to push brands to expand their image, change the dynamic and shift the industry towards a more inclusive space.

There will be a focus on sexual awareness and sexual health rather than what a brand defines as sex for its audience.


Using sex as a marketing tactic will never disappear, but instead it will continue to evolve, just like the spectrum that is sexuality.