The Prevalence of Sexual Imagery in Ads Targeted to Young Adults

Article excerpt

To determine if advertisers use sexual imagery to appeal to youth, 2,863 ads in magazines read by young and mature adults were compared. Results indicate that ads targeted to young adults were 65% more likely to contain provocatively dressed models and 128% more likely to contain sexual behavior than those for mature adults. In the ads for young adults, female models were 3.7 times more likely to be portrayed sexually than were male models. The findings suggest that advertisers use sexual imagery, primarily by means of female models, to appeal to young audiences. Education and consumer action implications are discussed.

In the area of advertising and consumer protection, much has been written about what Boddewyn (1991) referred to as "hard" issues--deception and the veracity of ad claims. Less attention has been devoted to "soft" issues (i.e., sexual content, decency, and objectification) because, as Boddewyn asserted, these issues "are more difficult to define and handle because they reflect a large variety of personally subjective, culturally related and historically changing values and attitudes" (Boddewyn 1991, p. 25).

Sex and sexism in advertising warrant further discussion, as marketers target young audiences with sex appeals. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch generated increased sales with its "magalog"--a combination catalog and magazine--which is replete with sexual themes and imagery. Since initiating the magalog in 1992, Abercrombie's revenues grew from $50 million to over $1.5 billion in 2001. Similarly, Candie's Inc. attracted attention with its "Anywhere you dare" fragrance campaign. Ads featured celebrities in sexually suggestive and sexist situations. The campaign was a move to increase the brand's share of the $1.2 billion teen fragrance segment (Chaplin 1999).

As these examples illustrate, marketers use sexual, and often sexist, imagery to sell products to teens and young adults. Whereas evidence suggests that sexual content is common in programming and other forms of media viewed by young adults (for review, see Brown 2002), there is a dearth of systematic research to verify that sexual content is used to advertise products to youth. Before advancing further, it is important to briefly define sex in advertising and to describe relevant content and effects research.

DEFINITION, PREVALENCE, AND EFFECTS

We may know it when we see it, but for some people sex in advertising can include instances or occurrences ranging from feminine hygiene products to images of full frontal nudity. Most often, however, the style or amount of clothing worn by models is a common form of sex in advertising (Reichert 2003). As noted by Gould (1994), sex in advertising is typically visual (physically attractive models, depictions of sexual behavior with partners or alone) but can also include verbal innuendo and explicit copy.

Content studies reveal that sexual imagery levels vary by medium. In a landmark study, Soley and Reid (1988) found that 35% of women and 14% of men were dressed sexually in magazine ads. An update found the percentages to increase through 1993 (Reichert, Lambiase, Morgan, Carstarphen, and Zavoina 1999). Lin (1998) found 12% of models (primarily female) to be sexually attired and 8% involved in sexual behavior in primetime commercials. Similarly, analyses of network promotional messages reveal that over 20% contain sexual content, up significantly in recent years (Walker 2000). Overall, these studies reveal that sex is present in advertising, but they provide no indication of segmentation other than gender.

Consideration of the effects of sexual content may shed light on the reasons sex is used to sell products to youth. According to accumulated research, sexual information attracts viewer attention (for review, see Percy and Rossiter 1992). The effect may be heightened for young adults, for whom sexual expression and experiences are still relatively new. …