Sex in Advertising

Sexual information has been used as an advertising tool since the beginning of modern advertising. This tool is generally considered to be effective but its effectiveness depends on a number of factors such as the audience, the product or service being promoted, the intensity of the sexual content and the context.

Sexual information, according to a definition by Harris cited by Tom Reichert, is "any representation that portrays or implies sexual interest, behavior or motivation." There are different types of sexual information in advertising – nudity, sexual behavior, physical attractiveness, sexual referents (images or words), sexual embeds (referents or forms of sexual representation designed to be perceived subconsciously).

Adverts containing sexual information typically attract increased attention but the sexual imagery may also distract the viewers from the real object of the advert, namely the product or service that is being advertised. As a result, the use of sex appeal in brand advertisement may not be as effective as needed and it may be more beneficial in other types of advertising, for example social marketing.

Depending on the audience, sexual adverts may appeal to or repulse viewers. For example, such adverts typically appeal more to younger groups that have a more open view of sex, while they evoke less favorable response in conservative, sex-negative or older people. In addition, it is considered that ads with mild sexual appeal are generally better-accepted than ones that have more explicit sexual content.

Sexual adverts can be found in all types of media although their share varies by medium and program. For example, according to a study cited in An Update on Sex in Magazine Advertising: 1983 to 2003 (2004), in 1993 more than 8% of prime-time commercials on television contained some sexual information compared to 53% of magazines adverts with heterosexual couples. In addition, only 12% of female models in prime-time commercials were provocatively dressed versus 40% in magazines adverts.

Sexual advert content is also different in different types of magazines. Adverts containing some sexual information tend to be more common in women's and men's magazines compared to general-interest magazines such as news weeklies. The explicitness of the sexual information shows the same trend.

The proportion of sexual adverts also varies depending on the type of product that is being advertised. For example, the beauty, fashion, fragrance, alcohol and tobacco industries tend to rely more on sex appeal than other industries.

It is mostly women that are used as models in sexual adverts. However, these ads may be targeted at both men and women as viewer groups. For example, if a female model is used to advertise a lingerie brand, female viewers tend to think that they will be just as beautiful and sexy if they buy the products of this particular brand. Male models are also getting increased attention in sexual adverts. Adverts that feature men are not only targeted at female viewers but also at homosexuals.

Sex in advertising tends to become more and more explicit and the main reason for this is the so-called habituation of the audience. Sexual information, due to its emotion-evoking nature, is a good tool to pierce consumers' perceptual fields and attract their attention. However, over time viewers have got used to sexually provocative and appealing advertising so the sexual information must become more intense in order to evoke the same degree of attention and arousal as before. At a more macro-level it can be said that the level of sexual information in adverts is increasing as advertising reflects the general development of social trends and overall media content. However, the process of habituation cannot go on forever as there is increasing public pressure to limit the amount and explicitness of sexual content in media and advertising.

One controversial question related to sexual advertising is whether it is ethical to use sexual appeal in adverts or not. There is a fine line between what people consider acceptable and what they see as unacceptable, and it is important for marketers to continually re-evaluate the trends and attitudes in society. In addition, the advertiser should consider the product or service that is being advertised and the target group of the advertisement before making a decision whether or not sexual appeal can be used and to what extent. For example, it would be inappropriate to use sexual adverts to promote products for children.

Sex in Advertising: Selected full-text books and articles

Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal By Tom Reichert; Jacqueline Lambiase Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Ethics in Advertising: Sex Sells, but Should It? By Blair, Jessica Dawn; Stephenson, Jason Duane; Hill, Kathy L.; Green, John S Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, Vol. 9, No. 1-2, January-July 2006
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Technology - Sex, Potato Chips, and Media Literacy By Van Horn, Royal Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 84, No. 1, September 2002
Using Sex Appeal as a Sport Promotion Strategy By Brooks, Christine M Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2001
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Prevalence of Sexual Imagery in Ads Targeted to Young Adults By Reichert, Tom The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter 2003
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Media Sex: What Are the Issues? By Barrie Gunter Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Can Media Sex Sell Commodities?"
Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective By Linda M. Scott; Rajeev Batra Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Librarian's tip: "Rhetorical Patterns in Sexually Oriented Advertising" begins on p. 252
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