Does Sex Sell?

Sex in advertising has been a controversial and important conversation since the early 1900s. The public wants a product that makes them feel sexy, confident, and wanted – the public wants sex.

The concept broke out in 1911 when Woodbury’s Soap launched an ad campaign with the slogan “A skin you love to touch”. In the next few years, their sales skyrocketed from thousands to millions of dollars. The creative director, Helen Landsdowne Resor had proven that sex can indeed sell.

The extreme sexualization did not commence until Calvin Klein used topless women, unbuckled jeans, and sexual positions in his ads in the 1930s. And while this started the new take on advertising, Calvin Jeans did not become a prime example of controversy and sexualization until the 1980s. At that time, a campaign featuring actress Brooke Shields came out. In the video, Shields is sitting in a sexual position, whistling, and then saying “do you know what comes between me and my Calvin’s – nothing.” The ad was discussed by many critics and banned from many networks. And while that may not seem like an ad that should have risen as much attention as it did, it was the fact that Shields was only 15 years of age at the time of the campaign that did it.

Despite the complaints, Klein continued to produce sexual advertising. In 1987, the designer released his first underwear collection and a few years later, his first perfume, and its respective ads just became more and more sexual. And while it reached a point where stores, networks, and organizations were banning Calvin Klein, sales showed that the target audience was liking the sex and as a result sales had increased to billions of dollars.

A more contemporary example of sexualization in advertising is Abercrombie & Fitch. Founded in 1892, the brand was targeted at outdoorsy men who enjoyed hiking, fishing, and mountain climbing. In 1988, the company was doing poorly, so it was bought by Limited Brands (same company that owns Victoria’s Secret). In the next years, the new company reshaped A&Fitch into what we today know the brand to be. Today, the brand is worth $2.6 billion.

Even sex can sell sex. In Australia, 2010, an ad for erectile dysfunction ran with humor and sex combined. While it raised a lot of controversy, the number on the screen was called by many, and sales rose (literally).

This post has shown several examples of how sex in advertising can help to increase sales. It has not discussed the question if it is right or wrong and if it is okay to go as far as advertisers do today? Are the creative directors coming up with this actually being creative or is sex just the easier route to an increase in sales? What do you think?…

O’Reiley, Terry. Sex in Advertising. Under the Influence. April 21, 2012. Web. 

One thought on “Does Sex Sell?

  1. These commercials were really funny! But it’s no surprise that sex sells. I really think we are becoming more open to discussing sexuality in the public realm and these types of ads will continue to be successful. In fact, with more openness regarding the subject, commercials and ads will probably become more sexual.


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