Dare To Defend The Usage of Sex in Advertising

“Jovan Musk Oil, introduced in 1971, was promoted with sexual entendre and descriptions of the fragrance’s sexual attraction properties. As a result, Jovane, Inc.’s revenue grew from $1.5 million in 1971 to $77 million by 1978” (Sloan & Millman, 1979)

In a documentary, Killing Us Sofly by Jean Kilbourne, she portrays an endless collection of advertisements that utilizes sexuality in order to sell products. She argues are that “women are consistently turned into a thing – dehumanized” and that ad agencies unwarrently sexualize women for the sake of commerce.

Here are some of the examples of these advertisements: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTlmho_RovY

In spite of all the negative connotations with the usage of sex in advertisements (A recent University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favorably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products) the usage on the sex is on the rise (increasing from 15% in 1983 to 27% in 2003).

In spite of the fact that this is a blog for a Gender, Sex and Popular Culture class, I still found the communicated viewpoint on the usage of sex to be a very specific one.

Having been exposed only to what I consider to be extreme ‘right-wing’ views on the usage of sex in advertising; as a business student, I felt the need to at least communicate why businesses utilizes sex and dispel some of the myths and statements commonly made against usage of sex. Before I begin I would like to restate that I am merely attempting to offer some other viewpoints on this issue. Specifically, to explain the usage of sex from a business point of view so that people can view both sides of the coin; by doing so I am not implying that I support all usage of sex in advertising. After all one of the purpose of this course is to invite student inquiry.

One thing that really bugged me from “Killing Us Softly” was when Ms. Kilbourne makes the statement that sex is only used as a selling point, that advertisement is ‘selling sex’ that it’s a cheap tactic to make greater profits.
However, I disagree and frankly found this to be a superfluous statement. To be precise, in marketing, sex is merely a tool to grab an audiences’ attention, it is not what “sells” the product. Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert conducted a seven million dollar study which found that “sex does not sell anything other than itself”. What he was referring to was that at the end of the day sex cannot make up for a bad product. What sex is good at is grabbing a consumer’s attention; it is hardwired in our brain, a primitive INSTINCT. Granted, it is used as a selling tool and it does benefit products that have a correlation with sex (ex: beauty products, alcohol, clothing) but it is NOT solely used as a selling point because the end of the day, a consumer will not continuously buy/pay more for an inferior product just because they have a “sexy ad”.

Furthermore, Ms. Kilbourne talks about the use of only extremely skinny models and models with literally unobtainable beauty. She states satirically that this is the FIRST thing that advertisers do, “surround us with the image of ideal female beauty, so we all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful, and exactly what it takes.”

This is truly an unfair statement to make. She communicates that it is not important for a women to be beautiful as advertisers suggest. First, I must make it clear that the ‘ideal female beauty’ used by companies is the view of the vast majority of beholders, collected from various on-site research studies and questionnaires. The significance here is that the ‘ideal female beauty’ is not something created by the advertising industry. Secondly, originating from our primitive stages, we all have an innate idea of what is attractive about women. Is it fair to blame advertisers that we have this idea? Aside from the obvious blame to our hormones;  from the concepts of sex, gender and cultural hegemony, I would say that it is fairer to place the blame on cultural hegemony and more specifically the social institutions and parenting that largely influences an individual’s perception of cultural norms at a young age. Furthermore, contrary to what Ms. Killborne stated, Matrin Lindstrom concluded from his research that “Celebrities and ‘preternaturally beautiful’ people overshadow the message and brand… they add a sense of inauthenticity to the message.” Thus, it is in the interest of businesses to stray from the ‘Barbie-girl types’ and I believe it is becoming more diverse as media becomes more globalized and niche-driven.

The sole, fundamental reason for corporations to ‘live’ is to provide value to its customers in return for payments, which are then distributed to the corporations’ stakeholders (employees, shareholders, taxes to government, etc.) A simpler way to convey my point is that the customer is always the boss; without them a business cannot exist. For that reason I believe that corporations are changing the utilization of sex. I believe that some corporations have already begun to realize that the public view on the usage of sex is changing. More specifically, corporations are starting to adapt to its consumers’ changing view on the utilization of sex in advertisement. Take Dove for example that have begun to use plus sized models in their advertisements and started the Dove Foundation, the Self-Esteem Fund and a ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’.



Or GAP’s “GAP- BE BRIGHT- BE ONE” Ad, with two homosexual men pressed together under a shared t-shirt. They are hugging each other and facing the camera cheek-to-cheek. “BE ONE” is in large letters which emphasizes the same-sex relationship.


How do you guys feel about this change of tactic?

Do you agree or disagree with the usage of sex in advertisement and why so?

Do you believe it is fair to blame companies for some of the problems Jane lists such as: violence against women, eating disorders in women?

5 thoughts on “Dare To Defend The Usage of Sex in Advertising

  1. This kind of comes back to my question on the Abu Ghraib post: does society influence what is portrayed in popular culture, or does pop culture influence society? How can we pinpoint that? I think that yes, we can blame companies for violence against women and eating disorders because by constantly releasing images pertaining to those categories they are indirectly saying that violence against women is okay and obsession with appearance is okay.

    • I believe that society influences what is portrayed in popular culture however there can be negative unwanted effects from the portrayal which influences society, going in a full circle. For example, relating to your eating disorder, the companies from their consumer studies found that skinny, attractive models sold cosmetics better compared to a more “regular house-wife” model. However, this caused all the other companies to do the same, which led to zero representation of regular house-wives. The unwanted effect was that regular house-wives started to believe that everyone looks like what was portrayed in these advertisements and felt a compelling need to achieve those near impossible standards (since genetics has a factor and you can’t change genetics) through other methods causing the developing of an eating disorder when the company simply wanted to sell more cosmetics. This is where the danger of victim blaming lies. In one sense (closer to current society;s views) we blame the company for causing an increase in eating disorders. However, that result was unintentional and the act of causing the crime (developing eating disorders) was developed due to the perception that viewers developed for themselves. In this sense the company enabled the act of causing the crime though advertisements and thus are the instigator.
      In another sense, the company had no choice but to put forward that advertisement because it’s sales were declining and the company was about to go under and they’ve done everything else such that their product was nearly the same as all other cosmetics. In this case, the consumers were the enablers, placing the company in an environment where it needs to release the advertisements simply because it needed to survive because the consumers were not buying the product. In this sense the consumers enabled the act of causing the crime through creating that competitive environment and thus are the instigators.

      • I like the commerce perspective on this – what you said about the company having no choice makes sense, especially when they are in competition with other companies who will sell more based on the images that they use. It makes me wonder where change will come from. Will it be companies that somehow market “the average person” and other body types or will the change stem from something else?

      • I think the change will eventually come from the consumers again as we get fed up with the artificial images,but the onus should be on the business to communicate a non-detrimental message. Obviously that being said, it is much easier said than done.

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