Sex in Advertising

There is one major idea which designers and advertisers perpetually have at the back of their minds, and this idea is that “sex sells”. When we think of this we can relate it to a lot of things we observe around us especially in advertising. One can argue that advertising, particularly fashion advertising should not be focused on sex, which raises an important question- What is advertising?

“Advertising is the non-personal communication of information usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by identified sponsors through the various media (Bovee, 1992).” The issue of the portrayal of women as sex objects in reality is a strategy of marketing and at the end of the day the main goal is to get products sold.
There is more to advertising than just taking a picture and putting the logo and clothes in it. There always has to be something “more, different, creative or out of the box thinking” that makes it a good advertisement. Unfortunately, that thing is an exploitation of a particular gender; females to be more specific. This particular demographic has been reduced to stimulants for sex, people ready for sex, having sex, submissive people, unprepared people, promiscuous people, and sex objects, stereotyped to people who have to be slim causing anorexia. These advertisements have degraded them to objects especially in the fashion industry.

Purpose of study
The main purpose of our research is to examine the role of women in advertisements and will seek to answer the debated question of whether “the way women are portrayed sexually is too extreme or absolutely necessary”. The purpose of this study therefore, is to seek an answer to the question, “are women used as sex objects in fashion advertising?”

Ultimately the goal of people who want to sell clothes is to make money. Aside from the need of profit, legendary fashion designers like Calvin Klein have been noted to say that the reason why they make clothes is because they see a vision or void or can offer some form of creativity to the fashion world (Marsh, 2003). Calvin Klein’s vision may be real and be a reality at the same time but what needs to be known is that Calvin Klein is a brand, Calvin Klein has a parent company called Phillip Van Huesen, Calvin Klein is known in most parts of the civilized world and has grossed over $1 Billion (156 Billion Naira) as profit and it has to keep on doing so (Fajarado, 2008). There are millions of people that can do what it does and probably even better. The point where fashion and advertising meet is what Calvin Klein has mastered and he knows that there is a need to keep a reputation in form of a brand and he needs to sell in any way possible. Calvin Klein is a brand that made $5 billion in 2007 and a brand that has had over thirty controversial campaigns with cases of female pornography, child pornography, keeping slim era and mostly female exploitation or nudity in the thirty years of existence.

Advertising may sometimes be seen as underrated and many people do not know the value or the impact advertising has on the world. For example, if a young Nigerian should adopt the mindset of 1995; when the internet was not that popular and when old magazines were all we could get to keep up with the world. We would remember products like Gatorade (Sports Illustrated), Apple (Computer Shopper), Rolex (Time Magazine Inside Front Cover) and Marc Ecko and his weird designs (XXL,Vibe). People continuously saw these brands and even if they did not spend more than two seconds observing the advertisement there would be some form of representation of it in their minds. The kinds of advertisements people observed for more than two seconds were those who showed a woman’s breast, a woman in a bikini, a woman dressed expensively or something that they generally would not be able to afford but would look forward too. Advertising companies noticed that too and used that as an opportunity to exploit the female. Advertising has a major role in building a company’s brand. Now every company wanted to have their brand and it became even fiercer in the fashion industry where someone’s vision had to succeed and be known as the best in the world because there were too many people. The process of branding and advertising now became even more exploited because there is nothing as good as controversy, observing an ad for more than two seconds and wanting to know why a naked woman is there. Naturally the average human being takes more interest in whatever draws his/her curiosity the most

Sex in Advertising:
The Sex Theme is the most prominent that has occurred over the years and different brands have adopted it continually. Gallup & Robinson, an advertising and marketing research firm reported that: ‘In more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic to be a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace, although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique; handle with care and sellers beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing (Gallup & Robinson, 2007).” There are always many feminist complaints when people see these controversial campaigns. This statement shows that sex actually does sell from relatively explicit displays of sexual acts, down to the use of basic cosmetics to enhance attractive features.

Although most researchers would value Wikipedia as untrustworthy; there was a statement that explained exactly what sex in advertising does and how it has progressed; “In recent years ads for jeans, perfumes and many other products have featured provocative images that were designed to elicit sexual responses from as large a cross section of the population as possible, to shock by their ambivalence, or to appeal to repressed sexual desires, which are thought to carry a stronger emotional load. Increased tolerance, more tempered censorship, emancipation developments and increasing buying power of previously neglected appreciative target groups in rich markets (mainly in the west) have led to a marked increase in the share of attractive flesh ‘on display’.

Fashion based advertising should be about the clothes, bags, shoes, perfumes and other fashion accessories. It is logical when celebrities endorse products or when a model promotes a particular brand. It is however not acceptable when they are dressed indecently or in partial nudity. When this occurs, the attention shifts from the product, which is the main purpose of the advertisement to the model’s body.

Dr. Tom Reichert studied sex in advertisement effectively and said: “Sex is only used to grab attention.” These critics should update their thinking because research indicates that sex is used for more than attracting attention. 73%, almost three-quarters, of sexual ads in magazines contained a sex-related brand benefit. Common themes followed the “Buy this, get this” formula. If you buy our product: (1) You’ll be more sexually attractive, (2) have more or better sex, or (3) just feel sexier for your own sake. He also pointed out that many other companies have successfully used sex in advertising for sustained periods of time, and sex in advertising works in other ways beyond gaining attention and offering sex-related benefits. Suffice to say that as long at people desire to be attractive to others, and as long as people desire romance, intimacy, and love, and all the wonderful feelings they involve, advertisers can show how their products help meet those needs and desires (Reichert, 2008).

Another PhD holder, Dr. Taflinger approached the sex and advertising theory in a different way. He summarizes the situation from a professional, intellectual and psychological approach of the female and male mind. He pointed out that sex is the second strongest of the psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation. Advertisers know that effectiveness and application are gender linked. The differences in male and female psychobiology cause different approaches to and perceptions of sex, both the act and its outcome.

Taflinger also noted that there is a probability that in many products it is possible to find a sexual connection. That sexual connection is much easier to set up for men than for women. They are concerned with a woman’s anatomy — as long as a woman looks young enough and healthy, she is desirable. Men also consider her beautiful, since to a male beautiful and sexually attractive are virtually synonymous. In other words he says through advertising it is easy to get a man’s attention by using women’s bodies and associate getting the woman if he buys the product. It is playing on his instinctive rather than intellectual view of the world. The ad spends no time discussing her qualifications for sexual desire — her mere existence is enough. He bluntly pointed out that to sell to a woman, advertising relies on that modern idea about how men and women relate which is romance and sex as earlier pointed out. These observations and research has come to the conclusion that sex is a strong appeal to use in advertising (Taflinger, 1996).

Sex, women and advertising are very much effective because people still use them every time to get attention. Fashion magazines are the main platforms where these kinds of advertisements are found. One would not see an advertisement for Gucci in The Economist or a Victoria’s Secret advertisement in TIME or Forbes. From research conducted all the fifty advertisements that had some sexual connotation where from fashion magazines. Elle, W, V, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Marie Claire and Vanity Fair were major magazines that embrace these advertisements. According to Conde Nast, the parent company of Vogue; the advertisement rate in the magazine is as much as $128,000 per page and the circulation rate is over a million. These magazines unfortunately will not prevent those kinds of advertisements because they are their major source of income and they would describe the ads as creative, innovative, different, trend setting and expression of the mind through the clothes. This is why sexually undertone is still present in magazines. Activists have tried to fight it and question it; but so far the only thing with regards to fashion magazines that they have been a bit productive with is fighting anorexia which is as big as a deal as portrayal of women in advertisements. That is the only suitable environment for those ads because they pretend that it is not a problem. Unfortunately, what all magazines require is profit and these designers are what bring it.


Most of the advertisements we observed in these fashion magazines all had some form of sexual portrayal of women. This research was done based on a five year span; 2003 to 2008. Unfortunately the issue of women being portrayed as sex objects is still a recurring trend and this has increased as the years have passed. In other words the case has become worse. A sample size of one Hundred (100) Magazines was used. Out of this hundred Sixty five percent (65%) where explicit, Twenty five percent (25%) carried moderately disturbing images and ten percent (10%) portrayed women in a respectable manner. But the fact still remains that women are used as objects which aid advertising and indeed sales of a product.

Findings and interpretations

After a thorough analysis of various fashion advertisements ranging from year 2003 to 2008, we have come up with a general perception that Women are indeed and more than often used as materials which appeal to the male market especially. We found out that in most of the sampled advertisements, the nudity displayed had no direct connection with the product being sold a good example is an ad by American apparel which displayed the bare buttocks of a young lady when indeed the product being publicized was a pair of thigh high stockings.
Most of the advertisements generate enough attention because of the controversy; they get good publicity by exploiting women.

Censoring Sexual theme in Advertising
Jennifer Berger, the author of a website About says; “Ads never let us forget that a woman’s worth is determined by her appeal to men. Nothing else about her matters, not her thoughts, feelings, or experiences. She is an object to be judged, evaluated and deemed desirable enough by the observer. Her only power lies in controlling and manipulating her appearance, and even in that she is set up to fall short of the perfect ideal. When women are shown in positions of powerlessness, submission, and subjugation the message to men is clear. Women are always available as the targets of aggression and violence, they are inferior to men and thus deserve to be dominated, and women exist to fulfill the needs of men.”

This observation is true because it does not value females in the society; it treats them like objects, animals and can even be compared or be worse than racism. According to a United Nations report, during the International Women’s Day, March 8, 2001, the Office of Women’s Policy in Victoria, Australia established a committee to address issues of concern regarding the portrayal of women in advertising. The committee stated that previous research on images of women has suggested that these images: -fail to portray a representative rage of women’s real skills and occupations, particularly in positions of authority; fail to reflect the increasing diversity and richness of women’s lives, or the range of women’s contributions and achievements; and fail to represent the real variety of women’s ages, shapes, sizes and colors. They also stated that this type of presentation of women is problematic because they can generate adverse perceptions of women.

The fact that sex sells, according to the same report by Gallup & Robinson, is shown by one of the fastest growing brands in the world, Herbal Essences Moisturizing Body Wash, whose sales climbed from zero to $700 million in seven years. Also through research in an advertisement archive called, we encountered some extreme Tom Ford advertisements of his perfumes. In 2007, there were three released advertisements; the first showed the perfume in between a woman’s bare breast and she used her hands to cover her nipples, the other one had the perfume on top the woman’s vagina and the third one had a female hand groping a male’s private part. All these were not edited or blurred in any way; they were shown explicitly. Through this he started getting popular because of his scandalous and controversial advertisements. This has been the most extreme case of sexuality in advertisements; others include Dolce & Gabanna’s rape advertisement in 2007, Puma’s oral sex advertisement in 2003, Sisley’s 2003 campaign with a woman drinking milk from a cow’s breast, Calvin Klein’s campaigns through the thirty years which have ranged from issues to female child pornography, nudity at a time when it could not even be accepted at all unlike now. Other brands include Christian Dior, Cartier, Pirelli, Jacob & Co., Rocawaer, Vodka, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Belvedere, Moschino and Gucci.

Sex in advertising, as in life, is here to stay. Its expression will be dynamic, changing to reflect the attitudes of its time. If people can accept homosexuality or marijuana smoking as good; it might be an indication that it would soon be widely accepted.
So at the end of it all, it boils down to one thing; magazine owners, advertisers, investors and the models are all doing what they do for money; if not it would have been stopped a long time ago. There is little doubt that sex fascinates us all, but to the business man, the advertiser, it has an added dimension of interest; it sells.


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Marsh, L. (2003). The House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy, and a Business Obsession. Boston: Wiley

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