What is Sex Really Selling?

Everywhere you turn, you see it — advertisements that feature models in seductive poses or racy images that entice customers to purchase the product. Advertisers are increasingly utilizing the theory that “sex sells” in order to promote their products. Why? Because it works.

 The link between sex and advertising has been traced back all the way to the beginning of advertising in the 19th century. One of the earliest known advertisements that used sex to sell were trading cards tobacco companies placed into their cigarettes packages. These collectible cards featured women wearing scandalous outfits (for their time) with excessive skin exposure, encouraging men to smoke a specific brand of cigarettes.

 However, the use of erotic images in advertising didn’t stop there. Later in the 19th century, Woodbury’s Facial Soap released an advertisement suggesting intimacy between a man and women. With the tag line, “A Skin You Love to Touch,” the man faces the female model while embracing her, clearly showing the mans desire. It is apparent that the continued use of erotic advertising over the years has stuck, simply because it works.

The use of sex in advertising has been a long-standing tradition in the history of advertising and continues to increase in today’s society. Researchers conducted a study looking at 3,232 full-page advertisements in popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Time, Newsweek and Playboy, published in three different decades –1983, 1993, and 2003. In 1983, 15% of advertisements used sex to promote their products and increased to 27% in 2003.

Sex appeal could arguably be the leading technique that advertising agencies use in America to attract certain audiences. So it comes to no surprise that Hardees would use attractive females eating a large, oh-so-juicy hamburger in slow motion. So the question being asked is, “Is it ethical for the new Hardees advertisements to set a new standard for sexualizing food by using a sexy woman making love to a burger?”. Objectifying women in advertising is very prominent for the targeting to male audiences. The message Hardees would appear to be establishing is, “Hey, boys, you have next to no chance of ever having sex with a woman who looks like Kate Upton unless you save your money and pay for it. But you can satisfy your hunger with one of these salacious sandwiches she has blessed”.


The burger giant, Carl’s Jr. hired socialite and reality TV star Paris Hilton to star in several commercials and print ads for its Spicy BBQ burger. The advertisements utilizes sex appeal with the famous male anatomy logo “She’ll tell you size doesn’t matter. She’s lying”. The intention of this ad was targeted mainly for men to relate that size really does matter, and to women that fit girls can still indulge a greasy cheeseburgers. But the hair flipping, sliding around on a wet car minute long video was too over sexualized and banned from airing during the Super bowl. Carl’s Jr. did not consider ethical approaches or consider the different audiences that would see this ad as morally wrong, like the Parents Television Council. mqdefault[10]Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder responded to this threat with, “This isn’t Janet Jackson — there is no nipple in this. There is no nudity, there is no sex acts — it’s a beautiful model in a swimsuit washing a car.” But it’s not just the act of having a woman half-naked in a commercial, it is mostly about the misleading message in the commercial. But, as always, there are people who are going to be offended by this kind of publicity by stating that they are portraying women as sexual objects. What’s your opinion on this?

Food companies weren’t the only ones using sex as a selling point. Last Fall, Adidas also joined the sex appeal craze. They created a controversial advertisement that essentially showed a woman stripping her clothes purely because she was a fan of his Adidas shoes. The ad is being directed toward younger men who thrive to appear attractive through their style. However, it is questionable whether it is actually selling the shoes, or the idea that a woman is easily convinced to undress for a reason such as one’s appearance. Adidas has continuously presented their brand as one that stands for teamwork and the value of sports. They slightly re-branded themselves in this advertisement as a company that also cares about the style Adidas shoes can bring into your social life. A little re-branding is necessary every now and then to keep a product’s image fresh, however an ad such as this one also represents a gender stereotype that women will strip their clothes as soon as they see a pair of stylish clothes. There is a very thin line between proper sex appeal and the use of offensive gender stereotypes, and it is difficult to tell if Adidas actually crossed this line.

In today’s culture, audiences are bombarded with advertisements left and right. In order to distinguish themselves from the crowd, some advertisements are using sex appeal to grab the attention of consumers. Is it ethical to use sex appeal as a way to persuade consumers? Have advertisements gone too far?

-Briana McWhirter, Emily Foulke, Hannah Turner

7 thoughts on “What is Sex Really Selling?

  1. I think this post raises a really interesting question. The objectification of women has become so common place that it hardly appears out of the ordinary in our culture today. Personally, I do think advertising has gone too far and unfortunately I don’t see it changing entirely anytime soon. With every step forward there is another step backward. Aerie recently released an ad campaign with untouched models that has received a lot of positive media attention, but being an ad for underwear.. it is hard to get away from selling sex. It is a tough place to be in as an ad agency. Every choice has a downfall in some senses. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the increase of objectification of the male body in advertising lately. An increase that could be seen as contributing the crisis of masculinity that our country is facing.


  2. Growing up in a small and conservative town has lead to many conversations about using sexual images in advertisements. Although most of those conversations were me listening to older people slam the ads for being “inappropriate”, I personally don’t see a problem with it. Humans are sexual beings and in today’s world being “hot” is what is in. Using what humans are naturally drawn to to promote a product isn’t ignorant, but smart. Each advertisement should be looked at as a whole and as a piece of art, not just a naked person posing for a picture. However, ads shouldn’t solely focus on sex and when sex is involved, it should be done tastefully.

  3. This is a very interesting topic and something that I think happens very often. I feel that there are certain extremes to this, and that I am glad that one commercial with Paris Hilton was taken off during the Super Bowl. Sex does sell, but as a consumer I would not want to go to Hardees to buy a burger after that commercial. There needs to be guidelines when it comes to half naked women or sometimes men selling certain products. I think the advertisers need to ask if there is a different angle that this could be looked at, instead of using sex appeal in commercials. This situation is not going away, and as you said it is grower over the years. I feel that this is just part of our culture now. Instead of turning their head, consumers look at this as just another commercial or ad.

  4. This reminds me of a few advertisements I saw last week. Three women, faceless, almost naked women at that, were huddled around one man holding his vodka right next to his cheek. I understand the shock value of naked women and the attention it gathers from viewers, but on the next page two beer bottles positioned in the shape of a woman’s legs and bottom caught my eye. Heineken simply stated, “Bottom’s up.” Although this tactic’s effectiveness has been proven, I believe there are more creative routes to advertising than objectifying any person to bring in business.

  5. I think that sex does sell and a little sex appeal is natural and favorable in advertising for a lot of brands. Clothing, accessories, alcohol and–well–lube, condoms etc. are appropriate markets when selling sex; however, a brand’s reputation is contingent on whether or not this “sexy” advertisement is tasteful and creative. Food doesn’t seem very sexy (to some), but I think selling the actual cheeseburger as sexy rather than the woman holding it (like without her even there) would be a creative and comical approach to sex.

    I agree with the premise that most sex-related campaigns objectify women or appear misogynistic. But, like Dr. Persuit mentioned in class, the market is male-dominated in a way that if the married man buys into a product, the rest of the family is likely to follow. While I’m not justifying the portrayal of women as sexual objects at all, I just think that’s some of the reasoning behind those kinds of ads. However, a lot of sexy ads are targeted at teens or young adults who may not be married, too. Sex taps into the natural and instinctual tendencies of human nature, so I think it’s an important strategy. While it may be over-done or worn out at this point is up for debate. Any topic can be turned around and made new again.

  6. Companies use sex to promote their products so much that I usually don’t even realize how sexual some of their ads are. Sadly it’s like its part of our culture. The last time I was really wowed about an ad was from a K Mart Commercial. The commercial ran during Christmas time last year and it was for Joe Boxer. They had about six guys in a line wearing boxers thrusting their hips that rung bells sounds from their private parts. When I seen that I immediately thought “wow that’s very sexual” and I was surprised that it was still playing on TV. Companies realize that they are many things that distract their customers and potential customers and they want to grab their attention and keep it to influence them to buy their product. Unfortunately sex is one of the few things that catches our attention and keeps it.

  7. Sex does indeed sell, but many advertisers are taking it too far. Their advertisements are no longer about the product and more and more about unrelated models. The Go Daddy ad from last year’s Super Bowl comes to mind where a very attractive woman makes out with an unattractive man. It had no relevance to the company or the consumer. It was meant to simply get attention.

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