Jean Kilbourne contends, “These days, graphic sexual images seem more extreme, more pervasive, and more perverse than ever before. Images that used to belong to the world of pornography are now commonplace in family magazines and newspapers, in TV commercials, on billboards, and online” (Kilbourne 2005).
II. Does Sex Appeal Work?
III. Has the Use of Sex in Advertising Gone Too Far?
Consider the words from “Poker Face,” a popular song by Lady Gaga that topped the pop charts internationally in 2009 and won the 2010 Grammy Award for best dance recording:
Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun
And baby when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun
Some might say that the lyrics sound more like a whispered conversation in a sex club or a scene from an X-rated movie than part of the opening verse of an award-winning pop song. U.S. culture is awash in sexually explicit content, and the music industry is just one example. All forms of the media are caught up in the sex craze. We live in what appears to be a sex-obsessed society, with rude language, nudity, and eroticism all around us. What was once the unexpected (in terms of acceptable content or language) has become the expected, and the expected has now become the norm. It is no longer necessary to read men’s magazines like Penthouse or Maxim to see sexual imagery. Just surf the Web, turn on the TV, go to the movie theater, take a look at what teens are wearing, watch commercials, and look at print advertising.
Although the emergence of sex in advertising is not new, some of the controversies regarding it are. There are two basic issues surrounding sex in advertising: Does sex appeal work? In other words, does it really sell products and services? And has the use of sex in advertising gone too far? Should organizations limit their use of sexual images to sell their products and services, even if it does work? This chapter will explore both of these controversies.
Does Sex Appeal Work?
The use of sex appeal is not a new phenomenon in marketing. The blatantly sexual images depicted on walls in ancient Pompeii suggest that sex was used in public places to advertise various products ranging from food to baths to prostitution. (This is reminiscent of the explicit catalogs of “services available” that are distributed by hand and found in display cases along the streets of Las Vegas every night.) In ancient times, these public advertisements were not limited to “sin cities” like Pompeii, nor to just “sin services.”
As early as Victorian 1850, marketers were using the opposite sex as eye-catching images to promote their products and services. According to Goodrum and Dalrymple (1990), “Full female nudity was introduced with a photograph . . . to illustrate a Woodbury Soap ad in 1936.” Prior to that time, advertisers used sexual innuendo in copy by barely hinting at sexual images. Take, for instance, an advertisement for Iron Clad Hosiery from 1927. An attractive woman dressed in what today would be considered not very revealing undergarments seems to be caressing her “Iron Clad” ankle with an air of sensuality that is barely perceptible. The image is accompanied by the slogan, “The kind of beauty that thrills.” In addition, the print in the ad notes the “mysterious quality which glorifies the wearer’s own shapeliness and grace” that the hosiery offers. The image is less sexually suggestive than the copy of the advertisement (Goodrum and Dalrymple 1990).
Sexual appeal has been defined as “the degree of nudity or sexual explicitness found in visual, audio, and/or verbal elements of advertisements” (Gould 1994; Reichert and Carpenter 2004). It has long been accepted that sex appeals have stopping power, encouraging readers and viewers to stop, look, and listen. The “wow” factor of sexual appeals attracts attention to promotional messages, encouraging readers to notice specific messages out of the media clutter or barrage of stimuli to which they are exposed.
Nowhere has the stopping power of sex been used with more success than in the retailing industry. Consider Abercrombie and Fitch and its former quarterly publication called by many a “magalog.” Although the company contended the publication was a catalog to showcase and sell its merchandise, most of the models in the magazine were nude or nearly nude. It should have made even the casual viewer wonder, “How can a retailer expect to sell clothes from a catalog when none of the models are wearing any?” The company and its magazine sparked public outcry with its depiction of teenage boys and girls scantily clothed (if at all) in very suggestive poses. According to critics, “Not only did the magazine target teens, it did so in a sexual way . . . evident in the way the individual images in the magazine were staged” (Spurgin 2006).
Sexual imagery can also create problems and be counterproductive for marketers. It is widely accepted that sex appeal attracts attention, but studies show that it rarely encourages actual purchase behavior. Specifically, sexual images attract consumers to the ad but do not enhance the profitability of the brand or product. In some cases, sexual appeal has been shown to distract the audience from the main message of the marketer and interfere with comprehension, especially when there is complex information to be processed.
If marketers are going to use sexual images in ads, it is imperative that they know their audience, because several variables have been shown to play a role in the effectiveness of sexual appeals. For example, sex appeal seems to work differently for men and women and affect message comprehension and recall. Studies show that men often become so aroused by nudity used in ads that they have a hard time remembering components of the actual message or what the ad was about (Schiff man and Kanuk 2007). Women tend to be attracted to ads that use elements of fantasy, love, and romance, whereas men are more attracted to appeals that use nudity (Anne 1971). In addition, age seems to be related to whether a viewer responds favorably or unfavorably to sexual appeals (Maciejwski 2004). Younger audiences are usually less offended by sexual images, although this too may differ by gender. In a study of college-age consumers, researchers found that men and women differ significantly in their assessments of sexual appeals. Advertisers must take care when using sexual imagery (especially featuring women) in ads targeted to female college-age consumers (Maciejwski 2004). What one person finds erotic, another person may find offensive.
The bottom line for marketers is synergy. Sex ads do not work for all products. Sexually oriented appeals may be a poor promotional choice if the product, the ad, the target audience, and the sexual images themselves don’t all fit and complement each other (i.e., when the sexual images are unrelated to product claims, such as scantily clad women selling products for a hardware store).
Has the Use of Sex in Advertising Gone Too Far?
Most people agree that “the sexual ads that have drawn the most protest are those that exploit women as sex objects and those that use underage models in suggestive ways” (Duncan 2002). With the use of sexually oriented advertising comes scrutiny and protests by parents, legislators, and consumer activists—just to name a few groups. Consider the public furor over the FCUK brand from French Connection or the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake incident during the half-time show at the 2004 Super Bowl, when Jackson’s breast was exposed to viewers. This so-called wardrobe malfunction resulted in months of debate about American core values and the role of the Federal Trade Commission (which is only one of several federal agencies that has jurisdiction over the monitoring of one or more aspects of advertising and marketing communication in the United States) in regulating live television programs (Elliot 2005). In the wake of this incident, a time delay has been placed on all live television programs.
People still talk about the Calvin Klein controversy of the mid-1990s, when the designer used young-looking models (albeit over 18) to star in his controversial jean ads. While many critics rated these ads as outright “kiddie porn,” others contended that any PR is good PR (Lippe 1995). Some commentators compared these ads to the bare-bottomed toddler girl in the classic Coppertone ads, which are now viewed in a different way due to the current spotlight on pedophilia. The question remains: Was Klein just a wise businessman capitalizing on America’s craving for sex? Are sexual images in advertising today just good marketing? On one side of the argument is the belief that “the chief aim of marketing is to sell more things, to more people more often for more money” (Danziger 2002). The bottom line is profit, and, therefore, the sole obligation of the firm is to do whatever is necessary, within legal parameters, to maximize return on shareholder equity.
So, if sex sells more products, then sex in advertising is good for business. It sure has been good for a coffee stand in Seattle, Washington (Brady 1995). The owner has developed a special niche for his retail store, and business couldn’t be better. He uses gorgeous women barely dressed in bras and panties to lean out the window to take orders and deliver coffee and sweet treats. According to the owner, anything is fair game as long as his employees’ breasts and buttocks are covered so they aren’t breaking the law. The business owners report few complaints other than long drive-through lines.
The alternative point of view says that organizations must look beyond the specific profit interests of the firm and consider their greater social responsibility. Is sex in advertising going against moral and ethical standards? Is it exploiting women? Has it turned “sex into a dirty joke” (Kilbourne 2005)? Are sexually oriented ads just outright distasteful and wrong? Or do they just reflect a culture in which “the heat level has risen, the whole stimulation level is up” (Brady 1995)? An additional concern is that the more sexual images that are used in the media and advertising, the more acceptable the extent of the sexuality that will become in future advertising. In other words, sexual images are now an expectation in the advertising of clothing, perfume, body lotions, and hair products. The laws regarding sexual harassment indicate that acceptable behavior should be defined by what a “reasonable woman” would consider acceptable behavior. As we become socialized toward sexual innuendo and images, reasonable women will become more and more accepting of lewd behavior and images. This may up the ante for advertisers who feel continuously pressured to increase the “wow” factor and therefore increase the amount of sexual imagery they use.
As stated above, the unexpected in terms of sex appeal in advertising has become the expected, and now it has also become the norm. But the larger question is: Does that make it right? What are these graphic images teaching our youths? “That women are sexually desirable only if they are young, thin, carefully polished and groomed, made up, depilated, sprayed and scented” (Kilbourne 2005). At the opposite end of this spectrum, however, are new approaches to advertising, including the Dove theme suggesting that all women, regardless of their body type, are beautiful and desirable. Many advertisers are now using larger women as models. It has yet to be seen whether this is an improvement or simply an extension of the use of sexual imagery. In other words, if large and less traditionally attractive women are also presented as sexual objects, some might say that we are going backward instead of forward.
The women’s movement has spent decades fighting for an equal place at the table (i.e., equal pay for equal work, fair treatment, and the elimination of the glass ceiling). Has the women’s rights movement been a waste of time if we are still reducing women to nothing more than sex objects? We are teaching our youths (both boys and girls) to devalue the mental and spiritual aspects of a woman and focus exclusively on the physical.
For thousands of years, advertisers have used women as eye-catching images in their ads. At the start of the 21st century, this strategy continues full speed ahead. By modern standards, the images are raunchier, more explicit, and more widely employed. As a society, we get to decide where to draw the line. Therein lies another controversy—in a complex culture, which ones of us will make the decision? Will we turn off the TV, decide not to buy a product, or refuse to shop at a retail store that uses sexually explicit images in its advertisements? Regardless of our opinions about the use of sex in advertising, we ought to be concerned that private companies and their advertising agencies appear to be making those decisions now. We need to ponder the long-term effects on our culture.
Mary Beth Pinto and John D. Crane
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