Is It Finally The Time To Let Sexualised Advertising Go?

By Hitanshi Gupta

Female gladiators wearing bronze bikinis and the emperor sitting on his throne sipping a beverage. They approach the emperor one by one and stand in the middle of the arena. No, they do not start fighting. Instead, they throw their weapons and start singing “We Will Rock You” in anger. Mentioning the brand of the beverage would help you better understand the context. The emperor was enjoying a can of Pepsi. This is a classic example of how women are presented as desirable commodities in different marketing campaigns. 

Sexualisation of products in advertising is the use of sexual appeal as a tool of persuasion to bring the focus of the viewer to a product or service. However, this type of advertising does not highlight the product or service in question and distracts them from the original message, but instils an emotion of wanting in the viewer. Most companies lean towards subtle and, at times, subliminal sexualisation instead of highly overt actions. For example, in the Pepsi advertisement, the gladiators were singing passionately. Although there were no seductive expressions, their appearance, gestures and attractiveness make it sexualised. This makes the viewers excited and fired up and achieves the ultimate motive of the advertiser in drawing attention to the product. These advertisements can explicitly display sexual and seductive acts but, advertisers prefer to use double-meaning and underlying sexual references that are deeply embedded into one’s subconscious. 

The first example of sexualised marketing could be dated back to 1871 by Pearl Tobacco, which featured a naked maiden on the package cover. In a conservative era, one could understand why such an advertisement would come to the notice of the people. This trend was followed by other cigarette makers and owing to this, Duke and Sons became the top-selling brand within the next couple of years. Once the soap industry dipped its toes in the water of sexualised advertising, there was no going back. There is no other industry that has capitalised on this type of marketing as the fashion industry has. Calvin Kleinn has rolled out its heavily sexualised ads since the 1980s with one of its most popular campaigns being “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The ad was later banned in the United States. This style works to such an extent that it helped Calvin Kleinn stay afloat during a period of a financial crisis by boosting its underwears’ sales. The execution of such advertisements can prove to be tricky anytime. Dolce and Gabbana had been using sexualised advertising since the 1970s. But their advertisement in 2007 offended women worldwide in which a woman, who was surrounded by 4 men, was lying down with her wrists pinned down suggesting unethical intentions. This stirred controversy to such an extent that the campaign was banned in Italy. However, sometimes that is all that the companies are looking for, a way to make it to the headlines and get views. However, more often than not, this ends up in negative brand sentiments. 

When the most orthodox of companies have to resort to using sexualised marketing, one has to understand its influence. It uses one of our deepest and strongest human desires against us. The author of “The Erotic History of Advertising”, Tom Reichert claims that People are built-in such a way that they subconsciously notice sexually relevant information, including ads with sexual content. Advertisers know that products play a role in intimacy and they bank on it. If the viewer feels that the product would help them inch closer to romance, intimacy, love and feeling desired, it would grab their attention. According to research and studies, sexual content fuels impulsive purchases which makes the fashion industry the biggest player in the game. This marketing strategy fails for industries delivering information like banking, finance, insurance and, technical and electronic appliances. The main motive of the advertiser is to make the public remember the product. Since ads are not custom made, they are easily lost in the sea of marketing. But sexual advertising solves this –  people have a higher probability of remembering ads that have some sexual content involved. 

The impact and response of such marketing may vary depending on the culture, religion and gender of the receiver. Based on the study conducted by Luleå University of Technology, one fundamental difference in how men and women perceive such advertisements is that women do not define sexual appeal by the attractiveness of the actors. It was more about their movements and actions. It also claims that it is of utmost importance to men that the models look better than the average woman. People from more religious backgrounds may find such advertisements offensive. However, according to social scientists, religious households are more likely to remember such ads but this only reflects negatively on the brand because they stop associating themselves with it. In patriarchal communities, people easily get offended by the sexualised depiction of female bodies. Considering gender-neutral communities, people have varied reactions to such ads with no difference in people’s opinions based on the gender of the model. Gen Z is more self aware and sex positive, which makes them accept and embrace such ads, as compared to millennials. The 60 years+ population is known as boomers and they were brought up in orthodox environments, when the power was concentrated among few individuals and the minorities were still finding their voice. This is the reason that boomers still find it difficult to be completely comfortable with the concept of sexual advertising because being vocal about private matters is a foreign concept to them.

The criticism received by sexualised advertisements can be divided into three headers (SOS) , Stereotypes, Objectification and Social Norms. Firstly, these ads reinforce sexist stereotypes and usually depict women as vulnerable and less powerful than men. The models have unrealistic physiques and portray women as commodities for pleasure leading to objectification of women. The advertisers can go to any extent to get people interested, even if that at times means making minors pose provocatively and thus, pay no regard to social norms. 

A marketer is always in the grey when it comes to sexualised marketing. It can either be a game-changer for your company or can go terribly wrong. Audiences have more resources than ever which makes them more aware and educated. These resources make sexual content available to them at ease which takes away the dependency on such ads to feel desired. Stereotyping and objectification could’ve worked for companies in the past, but with the power that the current generation has, it is likely that such attempts to attract users fail. Sexual advertising is not wrong and might work positively for certain companies but, marketers need to keep in mind to be respectful, equal and inclusive. For the current standards of sexualised marketing, I just have some questions: 

Why is it that the models in these ads are of a certain physical description? Why is it always the women who are depicted as weak and not seen as equal, intelligent individuals? Do people of different body shapes and sizes and different genders not deserve to be represented as desirable? You know you’re in the wrong when you can’t answer. 

Does Sex Really Sell? Paradoxical Effects of Sexualization in Advertising on Product Attractiveness and Purchase Intentions. (2020). 

Female Sexuality in Pepsi Commercial (A Study of Discourse of Advertising). (2011). 

Generational attitudes towards sexual advertisement. (2021). 

Is “Sex Sells” Still True? (2020). Better Marketing. 

The perils of ‘highly sexualised’ advertising. (2019). Drapers Online. 

Sex sells: lessons in depicting real women in advertising. (2021). The Drum. 

Sex in Advertising – How it influences young men and women. (2004).

Does Sex Still Sell? What Marketers Should Know. (2018). Business News Daily.