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