Does Sex Really Sell in Advertising?

There's Been Much Debate Over Whether It's an Effective Strategy

Sex Sells


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"Sex sells" is a commonly heard phrase in the advertising industry. Sex in advertising is the use of sexually provocative or erotic imagery, sounds, or subliminal messages that are specifically designed to arouse consumer interest in a particular product, service, or brand. Typically, ads portray beautiful women and handsome men to lure a consumer, despite a tenuous nonexistent link to the brand being advertised.

History of Selling Sex

Humans have an underlying, pre-programmed disposition to respond to sexual imagery that is very strong. This knowledge has been used for over 100 years in advertising. While increasingly abusing it, the industry cannot ignore the draw that sexual and erotic messaging has for consumers.

Back in 1885, W. Duke, Sons & Co., a manufacturer of facial soap, included trading cards in the soap's packaging that featured erotic images of the day's most popular female stars. The link between soap and sex is slim at best, but it worked.

Since then, brands have purposely linked to suggestive or downright blatant sexual imagery in the search for new customers. In particular, alcohol, fashion, perfume, and car advertisements have created strong links to images of a sexual nature.

Using Sex to Sell

It's a fact that sex sells. Popular men's magazines such as Maxim and FHM have experimented often with their covers. Overwhelmingly, when a beautiful woman appears on the cover, it outperforms an image of a male star, even if that star is currently in the news.

When ads are more sexually provocative, men and women are drawn to them. If your ad creates a sexual situation, it will get the desired response. However, sex can't sell everything, as there has to be context.

And more and more brands are realizing that using women's bodies to sell products doesn't always go over well with female consumers, many of whom make the decisions about household spending.

Sex Can Turn Off Customers

There's a fine line using sex to sell a product, and all too often brands step over it. Consumers are human, they will respond, but they're also smart, well-educated people who will soon realize that they're being manipulated.

People may buy your product one or two times due to the erotic interplay, but if the product isn't any good, they'll lose interest. In addition, they may feel cheated or patronized, and you could lose their trust.

At the end of the day, sexual imagery may attract a certain demographic to your product or service, but there has to be a legitimate tie.

Sex vs. Activism

Take a look at the Super Bowl ads produced for the 2018 game. Unlike Super Bowl ads of the past, which featured sexual imagery, this year had much less sexual messaging. It appears that the recent political upheaval, and the massive interest in the direction of America, has caused a major shift in how brands grab attention. 

Sex may sell, but activism, political messages, and worthy causes are more popular. The focus has gone from titillation to something far more serious. Brands are now taking a stand on immigration, the climate, eco-friendly products, equal pay for women, racism and sexism. And while this heavy subject matter may have been too much for baby boomer audiences, modern consumers, especially millennials, respond to it.

Future of Sex in Advertising

Sex is here to stay, but it likely won't be featured as prominently in mass-market messaging going forward. The rise of the internet produced a direct line for much stronger, graphic sexual material to enter consumers' homes. Yes, there will always be semi-naked men and women, and innuendo, but social sharing will overpower that messaging. It's much easier to share a powerful political message than a lewd one. 

If you are advertising deodorant or lingerie, you may want to use sex as a selling strategy. However, if you're selling a lawn mower or a new sofa with nudity and sex, you're doing your product a serious disservice. Your strategy will be obvious to the consumer and the product will lose its appeal.