Does Sex Really Sell in Advertising?

Going Under the Covers of Sex in Advertising

Sex Sells
••• Getty Images

You'll hear the phrase often when you enter the advertising industry: SEX SELLS. But is that true? Do people really buy a product just because it has sexually stimulating imagery attached to it? Is the general public aware of the triggers being used to attract them to certain products or services? And more importantly, do they respond to it regardless? Let's take a dive into the murky waters of sex and advertising. 

What Is Sex in Advertising?

Simply put, sex in advertising is the use of sexually provocative or erotic imagery (or sounds, suggestions, and subliminal messages) that are specifically designed to arouse interest in a particular product, service or brand.

Typically, sex refers to beautiful women (and increasingly, handsome men) that are used to lure in a viewer, reader or listener, despite a tenuous a non-existent link to the brand being advertised.

Throughout History, Sex Has Been Used to Sell.

It's been said that as human beings, we have a lizard or reptilian brain that responds to certain primal urges. Food is one. Sex and reproduction are definitely others. This underlying, pre-programmed disposition to respond to sexual imagery is so strong, it has been used for over 100 years in advertising. And the industry, while abusing it more and more, would be foolish to ignore the draw of sexual and erotic messaging.

Back in 1885, W.Duke and Sons, a manufacturer of facial soap, included trading cards in the soap's packaging that included erotic images of the day's most popular female stars. The link between soap and sex is slim at best, but it worked. And ever since, brands have purposely linked themselves 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 with sex.

So, Does Sex Actually Sell?

Yes, sex sells. It's a fact. Popular men's magazines like Maxim and FHM have experimented often with their covers. Overwhelmingly, when a sexy, semi-naked woman appears on the cover, it outperforms an image of a male star, even if that star is someone men want to read about.

When ads are more sexually provocative, men in particular are irresistibly drawn to them. It's simple genetics. Men respond to sexual images. And if your ad creates a sexual situation, it will get the desired response. However, that doesn't mean it can sell anything. There has to be context.

Sex Can TURN OFF Customers

There's a fine line, and all too often these days brands are stepping way 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, you won't hold onto the customers for long. Not only that, they'll feel cheated, talked down to, or outright patronized. And that will take a much greater effort on the part of the advertiser to regain that 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. Even beer brands are starting to realize that.

Sex May Sell... But These Days, Activism Is Doing a Better Job

Take a look at the Super Bowl ads produced for the 2017 game. Unlike Super Bowl ads of the past, which featured the "twins," Paris Hilton eating a burger, and other sexual imagery, this year was much more grown up. It was not based around sex, sexuality, erotic imagery, provocative video, or suggestive sounds.

No, it appears that the recent political upheaval, and the massive interest in the direction America is going, has caused a major shift in how brands grab attention. 

Sex may sell. But activism, political messages, and worthy causes are trumping it (pardon the pun) in every category. 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, sexism, and so much more. And while this heavy subject matter may have been too much for previous audiences, the modern consumer is eating it up.

Remember, we now live in a society that gives people sex and pornography on demand, at the touch of a button. It's easy to get. So scantily-clad women in ads are not going to make the social impact that a hard-hitting political message will. This is the new reality. 

The Future of Sex in Advertising

Sex is here to stay, but it won't be featured as prominently in mass-market messaging. The rise of the internet over the last 20 years has produced a direct line for much stronger, graphic sexual material to enter consumers' homes. They have access to almost anything they want, for free. Why will they pay attention to a campaign that uses sex in a more tame way? Yes, there will always be semi-naked women and men, and innuendo, but as explored above, social sharing will overpower that. It's way easier to share a powerful political message than a lewd one.


The Bottom Line —​​​ Use Sex Appropriately

If you are advertising a male deodorant like Axe (Lynx in the UK) or lingerie like Victoria's Secret, you'd be a fool to overlook such a strong selling mechanism. But if you're trying to sell a lawn mower or a new sofa with nudity and sex, you're doing your product a serious disservice.

Yes, you'll get attention. But it's the wrong kind of attention, and won't lead to a bigger and better brand. Sex, used sparingly and judicially, is a strong selling tool. Abuse it, and you will ultimately lose out.