Advertising has come a long way since the days of Madison Avenue, with the majority of marketing now being digital and more tailored to its audience. However, one aspect that has remained unchanged is the use of sexual imagery in advertising. Despite the #MeToo movement and the death of Hugh Hefner, sexually suggestive content is still prevalent in advertising.
This article will examine how sexual content is used in advertising, the reasons for its success, its cultural and psychological impacts, and the measures taken by search engines and social media platforms to regulate explicit content.
How is Sex Used to Boost Sales? Advertisers often use sexual imagery to pander to the basic instincts of human behavior. Whether it is six overarching instincts as outlined by Robert F. Port, Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, or the three main instincts known as the dark triad, which include self-preservation, sex, and greed, it is evident that sex plays a significant role in human behavior and is therefore a useful strategy in advertising.
The Inception of Sex in Advertising The use of sexual content in advertising dates back to the 19th century when brands such as Pearl Tobacco and Duke & Sons used images of naked women and sexually provocative starlets in their advertisements. The trend continued, with cigarette companies capitalizing on innuendos and suggestive imagery.
The Line between Provocative and Dangerous As advertising has pushed the limits of social acceptability, some brands have landed themselves in hot water for highly sexualized marketing strategies. Brands such as Calvin Klein Jeans and Dolce & Gabbana faced backlash for their advertisements, which were banned for suggesting rape and violence or for their combination of violence and sexual content. A study published in The Journal of Consumer Affairs found that advertisements targeted towards young adults were more likely to contain sexually suggestive material than those for older adults, highlighting the need for regulation.
Does Sex Actually Sell? Contrary to popular belief, sex does not always sell. A study by the American Psychological Association found that brands that advertised using sexual content were evaluated less favorably than those that advertised using nonsexual content. The study also showed that as the intensity of sexual content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased. However, the study revealed that context is key and when programing content and advertisement content were congruent, memory improved and buying intentions increased.
Why is Sexual Content So Pervasive in Advertising? Despite the evidence suggesting that sexual content may not be effective in increasing sales, it remains prevalent in advertising. A study conducted by Tom Reichert, Head of the Advertising and Public Relations Department at the University of Georgia, found that the rate of advertisements using sexual content rose from 15% in 1983 to 30% in 2003. One reason for this is that advertisers are aware of the impact of sexual content and use it as a means of getting noticed and standing out from the competition.
The Psychological Impact of Sexual Content in Advertising The use of sexual content in advertising can have a psychological impact on both the target audience and the wider population. Advertisements that use sexually suggestive material can contribute to the objectification of women and reinforce gender stereotypes, leading to negative body image and self-esteem issues. Additionally, advertisements that contain sexual content can also contribute to the sexualization of children and adolescents, which can lead to problems such as early sexualization, child sexual abuse, and sexual health issues.
The Cultural Impact of Sexual Content in Advertising The use of sexual content in advertising can also have a cultural impact, perpetuating harmful cultural norms and values. Advertisements that use sexually suggestive material can contribute to the normalization of rape culture such as the objectification, and the commodification of women. This can further contribute to the perpetuation of harmful attitudes towards women and can also harm the representation of women in the media. The sexualization of women in advertising can lead to a negative perception of women in society, with women being reduced to sexual objects rather than being seen as individuals with unique personalities and abilities.
Measures to Regulate Sexual Content in Advertising In light of these concerns, search engines and social media platforms have taken measures to regulate the use of sexual content in advertising. For example, Google has a policy that restricts the promotion of sexually explicit content, while Facebook has also put in place policies to regulate the use of explicit sexual content in advertisements. These measures have been implemented to help prevent the perpetuation of harmful cultural norms and values, as well as to protect children and adolescents from exposure to sexually suggestive material.
The Future of Sexual Content in Advertising The future of sexual content in advertising is uncertain, but it is likely that as society continues to evolve, the use of sexual content in advertising will become increasingly regulated. However, as long as advertisers continue to believe that sex sells, it is unlikely that it will disappear from advertising entirely. The key will be finding a balance between the use of sexual content to get noticed, and avoiding the perpetuation of harmful cultural norms and values.
The use of sexual content in advertising remains prevalent, despite the negative psychological and cultural impacts it can have. Advertisers use sexual content as a means of getting noticed and standing out from the competition, but there is evidence to suggest that it may not be effective in increasing sales. In response to these concerns, search engines and social media platforms have taken measures to regulate the use of explicit sexual content in advertisements. As society continues to evolve, it is likely that the use of sexual content in advertising will become increasingly regulated. The future of sexual content in advertising is uncertain, but finding a balance between using it to get noticed and avoiding the perpetuation of harmful cultural norms and values will be crucial.