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Sexuality and The Marketing World: A Messy Relationship

It’s fair to say that the world of advertising has always had a confusing relationship with sexuality. Something so human, so central to who we are, could never be ignored by those wanting our attention. And yet, they seem to keep getting it wrong. Whether it be the negligence of most forms of sexuality, or a desperate reliance upon sex appeal, the marketing industry just can’t quite wrap its head around the issue. So how can we change the depictions of sexuality advertised to us? It’s a lot easier than you may think.

A lense too narrow

One common and entirely justified criticism of the industry’s presentation of sexuality is that it’s fundamentally grounded in heteronormativity. Now, I should come clean here. I’m a straight guy. To all intents and purposes, I’m the equivalent of plain flour on the broad spectrum of sexuality, the kind of food you’d put in your mouth and spit out because it quite literally has no flavour. “Could I get some salt, or maybe some pepper?”, you’d ask the waiter, but there’s no saving this dish.

And yet, it was this very form of sexuality that was just about the only kind allowed in society for, well, rather a long time. The complete dismissal and persecution of any other kind filtered through into the media we consumed, and soon we had only muscle men in tighty-whities for women, and baywatch lookalikes for their husbands. Perfume adverts could not fathom that a world existed beyond straight couples eloping to Tuscany in vintage cars, while furniture companies adorned their garish ‘half-price till midnight’ sofas with grinning nuclear families.

But it didn’t have to be this way. A 2019 government survey put the percentage of openly LGB (lesbian, gay, or bisexual) people within the British population at 2.7%, that’s roughly 2 million people in the UK alone. This doesn’t even include a plethora of other sexualities, and serves to highlight the importance of reflecting these previously ignored members of society.


It's clear that we’re very behind where we should be when adverts like Norwegian Post’s recent Christmas commercial, in which Santa and another man do so much as kiss, can be called a breakthrough. In reality, it’s simply the mainstream, heterosexually dominated media finally acknowledging a massive percentage of the world's population. Nonetheless, we cannot overlook the positive effect it will have on anyone watching who feels unseen.

The benefits don't stop there. An article published in advocate magazine reported that “(straight) cisgender people who had been exposed to LGBTQ+ people in media over the past few years were more likely to accept members of this demographic and be supportive of the issues they face”. It’s unfortunate that we needed this push in the first place, but at least the ball’s rolling.

An outdated model

There’s another big problem with the marketing industry’s presentation of sexuality. Sex appeal.

In recent decades, we’ve grown almost numb to the billboards with ten foot tall cleavage watching over like the eye of Sauron. Sex appeal and sexuality have become interwined, enforcing the idea that nakedness equals sex, and sex equals worth. It’s also no secret that much of the sex appeal utilised by advertising agencies relies rather heavily upon the male gaze. Think, for example, of the last time you saw an advert in which a woman’s breasts were not shown as part of a ‘sexy’ image. It’s pretty much a guarantee that if they’re on show, they’re being sexualised.

Progress proveils one more

And yet, there is hope. Take the Frida Mom advert, in which women are shown breastfeeding their babies and facing the challenges that come with it. Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, points out in an article for The Drum that the advert allows women to reclaim their “non-sexuality”. “Every woman responded to the ad”, she stated, “because it was reflecting women’s true, lived experience, showing breasts in a non-sexual and specific to women context”.

Depicting women’s experiences of their own bodies without the unnecessary sexualisation we have grown so accustomed to is a vital step in moving away from the past. We’re all just over evolved apes, with bits here and there to keep us going. It really is that simple, and yet the marketing industry seems reluctant to move away from depicting women in particular as things to be ogled at. By portraying sexuality as something independent from the physical form, not only do we remove the burden of excessive sexualisation from women’s bodies, but we accept that it runs so much deeper than that.

So what next?

If I were to seriously suggest that sexuality wasn’t a key factor in many advertising campaigns I’d clearly be wrong. As the world slowly wakes up to the reality that, yes, straight people are not the only kind after all, it seems more important than ever that sexuality plays its role in bringing outside voices to the mainstream. But this need not be in the familiar form. Sexuality is so much more than provocative naked bodies and sex appeal, it’s the every day ways that we express who we are and what we’re in to.

So let’s have less Beckham undie shots and Victoria’s Secret runways, less Mr and Mrs Christmas ads and tired old relationship cliches, and more real people, with real bodies, experiencing life through their sexuality.


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