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Sex in Advertising, Does It Still Sell?

Sex sells. The origin of the phrase dates to the 1870s, the earliest known advertisement created by Pearl Tobacco. Depicting a naked woman on a poster to sell cigarettes, although the provocative imagery had nothing to do with the product itself. Sex appeal in advertising is the use of erotic or sexually provocative imagery, subliminal messages, or sounds designed to rouse consumer interest in a brand, product, or service.

Sexuality in advertising can be often quiet, by being subtle and subliminal, to entice the consumer without realising it. Using sensual imagery or wording within an advert to convey feeling. All whilst stimulating the viewer to subconsciously make connections to the product that is being marketed. After all, it is a very primal instinct.

In 2022, we are constantly bombarded with commercials and advertisements with each app that we open, website that we scroll through and game that we play. There is no getting away from it. Sexual innuendos in advertising have in recent years become more frequent and less subtle than they once were. Men and women both have varying attitudes towards the use of sexual imagery in advertisements.

What it once was

Calvin Klein has a long history of provocative campaigns featuring younger female models. In the 80s it featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields with the tagline “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.” The double entendre was lost on Shields, as she confessed to being ‘naïve’ when the photoshoot took place. The negative publicity against the advert was a marketing tactic of its own, boosting the campaign to success. Perhaps this was the catalyst that resulted in Klein to continue exploiting both men and women in monetising off controversially suggestive adverts.

“I was a virgin, and I was a virgin forever after that.” - Brooke Shields

Generally, sex that is relevant for the advertised product is likely to be accepted because sex is then seen as part of the product argument.’ If there is no correlation between the product and the sexual nature of the advertisement, then it is more likely to be challenged by the consumer.

Photograph by Terry Richardson

In 2007, Tom Ford released his debut menswear fragrance campaign where a nude woman is pictured holding a perfume bottle between her thighs with red manicured hands in one photograph, and her hands squeezing together her chest to show off a bottle of perfume in her cleavage in another. This was of course met with controversy, as women were once again being objectified to increase sales, by subjecting them to the male gaze.

Tom Ford is widely known for his use of sex within his work as a part of his creative license and is crowned ‘King of Sex’ in the fashion world. This does not eliminate the fact women were being sexualised and exploited to garner attention and sales. Ford also claimed that he didn’t see anything wrong with using people’s bodies as a ‘selling tool’, his reasoning for this being that he uses both men and women. This use of the shock factor made the campaign not only unforgettable but also as an example of when sex appeal is stretched too far.

The current climate

A new way to define sex in advertising has approached, finally, as brands are starting to challenge and distance themselves from the way sex has been portrayed in advertising and the media. Solely using women or men’s bodies to market products is no longer providing the shock factor that once had consumers in protest.

Unilever is the world’s second largest advertiser owning over 400 brands, including Lynx and Dove. Lynx has a history of objectifying both men and women in their adverts, however that has changed since 2016, where Unilever vowed to no longer use sexism to sell their products. ‘The way we were using sex was by men conquering women (Lynx) was part of the problem by generating an idea of a successful man who acts sexually in a way that is not through connection and more through performance. I realised at Lynx that men are raised to perform who they are, and sex is another way to perform.’ Since repositioning themselves and moving away from the stereotypical notions of what masculinity is meant to look like, Lynx have welcomed an inclusive and diverse outlook to the brand.

Does it still have a place in advertising today?

Using sexual appeal in advertising does clearly work and will likely continue to be used as a tool to sell.

Sexual imagery in advertising is a powerful tool as demonstrated by fashion giants in the past. But it should not be the only aim of an advert as it does not have the same impact it once did. It should not have to degrade anyone or create controversy for it to be successful. If it isn’t used in a harmful way where it's objectifying or promoting out of date ideas to consumers. If used in a positive, empowering manner and it makes logical sense for it to be included within the advertisement, it can work.


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