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What is the Role of Sex in Advertising?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 17, 2024
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The exact role of sex in advertising is debatable, but most people, including industry experts, would agree that getting the attention of the product's target audience is, or should be, its primary goal. All effective advertising must capture the attention of its target market in order to get a message across. Although sex in advertising can be controversial or distasteful, it can also be presented intelligently as well as tastefully. Yet, there is also the argument that ads containing distasteful sexual imagery are more common than advertising featuring tasteful sex appeal. Many people who disagree with erotic imagery in advertising further point out that there are negative societal consequences.

Ads as well as television shows, movies and other forms of media that portray only thin, attractive women as desirable or socially acceptable have been shown in some psychological studies to affect the body image perceptions of adolescent girls. Some mental health experts assert that disorders such as anorexia nervosa, in which a person has an unrealistic image of being overweight and employs starvation tactics, are further exacerbated by sex in advertising since the focus tends to be a portrayal of thin women as the only desirable women. Another concern is sexual objectification. For instance, some people feel that advertising's focus on attractive people presents them as objects to be desired rather than people to be respected.

Those who defend the use of sex appeal in advertising often point out that it's society as a whole that tends to consider fit, thin people as the most attractive; market research just confirms this. According to this line of reasoning, since effective marketing is based on an understanding of its target market's desires and needs to successfully sell products to it, sex in advertising is sometimes necessary. Advertising laws and standards do often regulate and restrict the extent of erotic imagery that may appear in ads. Copywriters and designers must create ads that meet print regulations and broadcast standards. Explicit nudity in advertising isn't permitted in many nations, though some European countries are known for being more lax.

North American television beer commercials often feature scantily clad young women to appeal to their mostly male target market. Sports and outdoor activities such as camping are other themes in these commercials because they also represent the interests of the product's target audience. Commercials for products that women buy more frequently tend to feature a much different, more romantic use of sex in advertising. For example, a series of successful television commercials for the product I Can't Believe It's Not Butter® featured the shirtless, muscled, flowing-haired romance novel cover model Fabio.

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Discussion Comments

By HamansEyes — On Apr 12, 2011

This article makes me think about this whole issue as a kind of chicken or the egg debate. It’s true that society has a very rigid view of what is considered attractive and beautiful, but I think the advent of sex in advertising has played a huge part in that.

I’m sure our ideas about beauty and sexuality don’t come from nowhere, and it’s been said that thinness and other modern ideas of beauty are relatively recent. So I wonder to what extent the huge amount of sex in advertisement and all of our media has created these ideas. Anyone have any thoughts?

By ruben — On Sep 15, 2010

Sex has been involved in the selling of products for as long as mankind has been interested in copulation. Previously, sex was used to sell perfumes and soap bars and mattresses, but these days, the advent of sex is so great it is practically used to sell anything and everything, all the way from paints to tooth brushes to even toilet paper! Gosh, I guess it's true, sex sells big time!

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