Is there a place for sexualised fashion advertising in 2020?

In recent years, there’s been a noticeable decline in hyper-sexualised fashion marketing media. The likes of Tom Ford, YSL and Calvin Klein employed sexualisation as a core marketing technique throughout the 90s and 00s. So why this shift towards the demure? And what are the implications for brand revenues?

A Brief History of Sexualised Advertising

Humans are inherently sexual creatures. One of our base instincts is to reproduce. Our desire to be attractive and seek attractive people fundamentally comes down to finding a mate. Psychologically, our evolution has programmed us to feel an emotional connection to attractive, sexualised imagery.

Fashion products are intimately connected to our bodies and sense of self, both physically and emotionally. So, it’s no wonder marketing teams have sought to tap into this base instinct to lead us to purchase.

Historically, Pearl Tobacco’s 1871 “maiden” packaging is considered the first advert to feature blatantly sexualised imagery. Later, a 1914 campaign from Woodbury’s Facial Soap caused a stir in the US. The brand used a series of images showing suited men embracing loosely clothed women, accompanied by the strapline “A Skin You Love To Touch.”

Former chairman of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, Kim Winser, argues that because sex largely takes place behind closed doors, any public allusion to it is powerful . And it certainly commands attention in advertising.

When we look to modern popular culture, the themes harnessed by Pearl Tobacco and Woodbury’s infamous campaigns have remained consistent. We’re surrounded by hyper-sexualised media. In fact, a 2012 study by professors at Evolutionary Psychology found that 92% of the 174 songs in Billboard’s 2009 Top 10 lists contained “reproductive messages.”

So, sex most definitely sells – and it has been used to promote everything. From tobacco and soap, to salad dressing, Eurostar trains and vegetarianism.

90s – 00s Peak and Pushing Limits

Of course, ahead of all of these other industries, sexualised advertising has infiltrated fashion most heavily. Since Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 nude photoshoot for his namesake fragrance, contemporary fashion and beauty advertising has harnessed the shock value of sexualised images.

The 1990s and 2000s can certainly be considered the peak of sexualised fashion advertising. With Calvin Klein, YSL and Tom Ford (who took the helm of Gucci in 1994) at the forefront of controversy. With particular regard to Ford, Harper’s Bazaar noted his “unabashedly rebellious and incredibly sensual” approach. This saw sales at Gucci increase by 90% between 1995 to 1996.