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Fashion has a new kind of sexy

In this article we’ll investigate how and why sexual advertising is used in fashion and the impact it has on consumers.

The history of sexual desire in advertising

“Sex Sells.” The everlasting statement that we’ve all heard. A statement of fact and passive acceptance. A motif; one that has been circulating and benefiting the advertising industry for centuries – especially when it comes to fashion.

Whether we like to admit it or not sexual desire, for a lot of us, is something that isn’t uncommon. But, some consider the use of sexual imagery in advertising to be taboo or pornographic.

However, it usually doesn’t matter if you have a high libido or not as the art of frottage is an age-old impulse. We, as humans, are hard-wired to respond, regardless of how sophisticated our thought process is.

Extensive research has shown that our brains have only three primal instincts: food, danger and pro-creation (or sex, if you will). Hence why mass media giants have repeatedly used sexualised marketing as a tool. They have done so as far back as the 19th century.

Sexual advertising in fashion and other industries isn’t a new-age phenomenon. It’s believed that a Pearl Tobacco ad, circa 1871, that featured a naked woman floating above a turbulent sea was the first use of sex in commerce. The advert had no relation to the product at hand yet supposedly increased sales.

In 1885, another tobacco company named W. Duke & Sons grew sales of their Cigarettes products. They did this by simply inserting trading cards depicting actresses in risque poses into the packaging.

Examples of sexual advertising in fashion

When considering fashion advertisements it was Tom Ford’s overhaul of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1990s which taught us once again that sex sells.

Ford took Gucci in 1994, which at the time was a wavering luxury goods company on the verge of bankruptcy, and made it an international success. After his tenure, leaving in 2004, the brand was profited at over £7 billion. With help from some obvious branding choices.

Influenced by Calvin Klein’s ad campaigns in the 1980s, Ford created some of the most daring advertisements in fashion history. If you were to ask any fashion personnel, they would probably recall Gucci’s Spring 2003 advert. The one where Carmen Kass had the brands’ trademark “G” shaved into her pubic hair which, in a pre-social media world, still managed to go ‘viral’.

The shift in consumer behaviour

Of course, overtly sexual fashion ads were decades old by this point and people may have grown to accept them. Since, it seems there has been a shift in consumer behaviour. Sex in advertising naturally rouses our interest, but the honest question is: for how much longer will it succeed?

It was only a couple of years ago when there was a influx of “desexualised” ad campaigns across both luxury and high-street fashion. We are starting to talk about sex more. It seems that using bodies to sell products is starting to turn people off. Sex may continue to sell, but activism and political messages seem to be bettering it.

A new kind of sexy

The focus of fashion advertisements has moved away from titillation to something that has more of a cause. Brands are now adopting a firm position on things that matter too, like immigration, the climate, feminism, racism, sexism and more.

For more traditional audiences, these topics can be seen as heavy subject matters. Yet, the modern-day consumer is more conscious of the world and wants something to believe in rather than something that is erotic.

In our society sex is so easy to come by. With the rise of the internet consumers can access a direct line for stronger, graphic sexual material – even sometimes with the simple push of a button- making us no longer as outraged as we used to be.

However, this isn’t to say that sex and advertising doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it just needs to become more refined; to make sure there is a strong and authentic context behind it when produced. Our idea of what sexy is has been re-envisioned and consumers realise this too, with behaviours constantly shifting.


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