THE JUSTICE Department's report that movie studios market adult-oriented films to young people was a hot topic during the 2000 presidential campaign. If officials had examined the use of sexually explicit ads, the same might have been true for the advertising industry. Increasingly, sexual content in the form of innuendo, nudity, and sexual situations and behavior is being used to sell products to teenagers and young adults.
The results of a 2000 study suggest that advertisers' sexy messages are getting through. More than 200 young adults, ages 18-25, demonstrated no hesitation when asked to name an ad they considered "really sexy." Over 60 ads were mentioned, and those cited most frequently were for Calvin Klein, Victoria's Secret, Clairol's Herbal Essences, Candie's, and Levi's. These, and many others like them, depict or allude to sexual behavior which is often more explicit than that found in movies. Unlike movies, however, these ads contain no ratings.
Consider, for instance, a commercial for Candie's fragrances that was popular among young people in the study. The ad featured actress Alyssa Milano writhing longingly on a bed as her boxers-clad male friend searched for something in the bathroom, seemingly for condoms. During his search, the camera cuts intermittently to provocative shots of her as she sprays perfume on herself. The viewer soon discovers it's cologne he is looking for, which he sprays on himself, including a quick spray in his boxer shorts. The last scene is a close-up of the fragrance bottles rocking back and forth on the sheets of the bed.
Although this commercial is clearly targeted toward young people, some sexual ads are not. All of them, though, appear in mainstream consumer media like prime-time television programs, billboards, and magazines. As such, they are seen and absorbed by a diverse audience that includes young adults, teenagers, and children.
By the time a youngster turns 14, he or she has been exposed to more than 350,000 television commercials. The average viewer watches at least six hours of commercial television messages a week. These estimates of media exposure do not include the countless print ads and promotional messages seen in other places. In all likelihood, sexy ads can be viewed by children watching programming during prime time or simply leafing through their brother's or sister's magazines.
What did the young adults involved in this study find sexy about the ads they identified? A 20-year-old male, describing another Candie's ad, said what he found sexy was "a partially naked Alyssa Milano [who is] surrounded by condoms and has her skirt hiked way up." Ads for Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo featuring women making orgasmic sounds prompted another 20-year-old male to say, "If I didn't see the TV, I might have thought it was a porno."
An 18-year-old female described a more recent Herbal Essences ad by saying, "The three men in black make the ad sexy. They are attractive and muscular, and the camera sometimes focuses on their hands touching the woman's body. It makes me, as the consumer, want to open the bottle of shampoo and have three strong, handsome men wash me."
The ad she was describing features a woman in a courtroom being attended to by three men. At the end of the commercial, celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer makes a reference to a full-body wash. This ad, which has run on many networks, including MTV, is part of a long-running campaign that has featured women making orgasmic sounds while washing their hair in out-of-the-ordinary places, such as an airplane lavatory and a service station restroom. The tag line of the campaign is a true play on words--"A totally organic experience."
In 1995, CBS refused to let a Victoria's Secret commercial air during early prime time. The ad featured model Claudia Schiffer dancing "seductively" in her underwear. In 2000, the Schiffer commercial seems mild when compared to the ads mentioned by the respondents. …