Sex and Advertising

A look at how sex is used, and abused, in adverting. 



    Sexuality is a force that drives us all.  It is everywhere, in the magazines we read, on the shows we watch, and in the advertisements for the products we buy.  It is thoroughly a force in our lives.  Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase write in their book Sex In Advertising, "Sexuality is a fundamental characteristic of people that influences their thoughts and behaviors, their orientations towards others, and life in general" (Reichert 2).  It is no surprise that such an all encompassing element in life would have a heavy influence in the advertising world.  How has sex become such a driving force in our lives?  Well, that is an impossible question.  Sex has of course always been around, but it has never been in every aspect of our lives as it has been in the last fifty years thanks to a heavy dose of sex through advertisements.  


    Current culture is certainly more permissive than in times past.  Reichert explains, "Sexual issues such as the advent and subsequent promotion of Viagra, along with the sensationalism of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, has resulted in an American public better able to handle sexual issues than ever before" (Reichert 1).  While it may be true that we are better able to discuss sexual topics, sex in advertising is not about "handling" sexual issues, it is about being sold products via sex.  However, the more sex that exists in our daily lives outside of advertising, the more likely we will see it in advertising.


    Historically advertisements focused their message on the strengths and general information of the product.  Now, we are flashed images that leave us feeling generally uneasy and confused.  In an article entitled "Advertising: The Rhetorical Imperative" author Malcolm Barnard writes, "The disapproval of advertising stems from the perception that ads generate, and then control, influence or manipulate desire: that ads make people desire more or other, than they need or would naturally desire" (Jenks 34).  Though many feel that they are "on to" the advertisers subliminal game, these advertisements continue to work and sell products.    


    Sex in advertising is used in an effort to entice people to buy their product.  But what is the effect of this tactic?  Jean Kilbourne, in her article "Advertising and Disconnection" explains, "Sex in advertising has far more to do with trivializing sex than promoting it, with narcissism than with promiscuity, with consuming than with connections.  The problem is not that it is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical" (Reichert 174). 


    What happens when sex is trivialized is not pleasant.  Sex lives in most Americans have dropped and the general pleasure gained through sex is no longer attained.  In a study done under a decade ago, 43% of women and 31% of men were found to have a sexual dysfunction (Reichert 177).  Kilbourne writes, 

Sex in advertising is about a constant state of desire and arousal--never about intimacy or fidelity or commitment.  This not only makes intimacy impossible--it erodes real desire.  The endless pursuit of passion is fueled by a sense of inner deadness, emptiness--and it is doomed to failure, like any addiction.  Passion inevitably, wanes and one is alone again, empty.  (Reichert 175)


    Sex is no longer gratifying.  Perhaps just as violence desensitizes us, so are we desensitized by the sexual images we see.  Kilbourne feels that these images lead "more to desensitization than to imitation" (Reichert 178).   Kilbourne quotes Norman Cousins who says that the trouble with these sexual images is, 

not that it corrupts, but that it desensitizes; not that it unleashes the passions, but that it cripples the emotions; not that it encourages a mature attitude, but that it is a reversion to infantile obsessions; not that it removes the blinders, but that it distorts the view.  Prowess is proclaimed but love it denied.  What we have is not liberation, but dehumanization. (Reichert 178) 

However, while the possible desire for sex is no longer there, desire is not altogether given up.  It is just replaced, perhaps by chocolate. 


       It was extremely interesting that most of the information I found on sex in advertising was that which was critical of it.   There seem to be many reasons why putting so much sex in advertising is not such a good idea, yet it prevails.  Turn on the television right now and within a few minutes I am confident you will find sexual images and messages relating to a product that most would consider asexual.  There must be some reason advertisers keep using these images, I suppose in the end sex does sell.  

    This topic is far from exhausted.  The effects of sex in advertising has been a hot topic in regards to men for quite some time.  There have been endless studies as to whether the half nude woman really does sell the car and the beer.  However, studies as to whether sex really sells products to women and how it sells products to women, have been few.  Tom Reichert, in his article "What is Sex Advertising?  Perspectives From Consumer Behavior and Social Sciences Research," writes,

 Despite the number of studies that have investigated the effects of sex in advertising, most have only assessed male responses to female sexual imagery (i.e. scantly clad women).  Although there are exceptions, it is important for future studies to assess women's responses to sexual content in advertising.  (Reichert 30, Words in parenthesis are Reichert's)

Though we can speculate as to the possible effectiveness and harm of such advertisements, there have not been many studies on the subject.  It is especially not apparent how sex is supposed to work in advertisements such as those on the following page.  It is clear that such studies are needed, as sex in advertising is surely not going away any time soon.  




 Women, Sex, and Chocolate