Sex In Advertising

Get this episode from Under the Influence: Sex in Advertising (Season 1, Episode 16) - EP - Under the Influence

This week, we explore whether sex really does sell. Woodbury's used sex to sell soap as far back the 1920s - and the campaign was written by a woman. But the use of sex has always been a polarizing technique. We'll explore how Calvin Klein built an empire on sex, how Abercrombie & Fitch revived a dying brand with sex, how an erectile dysfunction commercial generated the most complaints of the year in Australia, and we'll look at the fascinating story of a beer company that used sex to sell its product, and was sued by its own female employees.

Does sex sell? Let's find out.

The use of sex in advertising is not new.

We can trace sex in advertising all the way back to the mid 1800s, but it was an ad for Woodbury's Soap in 1911 that is a landmark. It was written by the creative director of J. Walter Thompson Advertising, Helen Landsdowne Resor:

Woodbury's skin you love to touch.jpg

While previous ads had hinted at sex, this Woodbury's ad made no mistake about it.

Over the next five years, sales skyrocketed from $515,000 to $2.8 million.

Then, in the 1930s, full female nudity appeared in advertising for the first time, and all bets were off.

Calvin Klein Jeans Ad.jpg

Woodbury nude ad .jpg

Though full nudity made its way into advertising in the 1930s, its not something you see much of in North America. There are exceptions, of course, but not many in mainstream media.

Sex as a selling tool is another matter.

The Summer of Love in 1967 pushed a lot of boundaries, none more so than sex in advertising.

Just listen to this Noxema Men's Shaving Lotion commercial from that very year:

Source: YouTube

The swinging 70s saw a big uptick in the prevalence of sex in advertising. Near the end of that decade, one of the most controversial and long-running sexual advertising campaigns began.

It was for Calvin Klein jeans.

His first foray into designer jeans was a failure. So he revamped the styling, by, quote: "Raising the groin to accentuate the crotch, and pulled the seam up between the buttocks to give the rear more shape."

A Times Square billboard caused a sensation when it showed Patti Hansen (Keith Richard's future partner) on all fours wearing the jeans, :

Patti Hansen CK Jeans ad.jpgSource:

But it was nothing compared to the heat Klein's next television commercial would generate.

Shot by Richard Avedon in 1980, it featured Brooke Shields wearing Calvin Klein jeans. But it wasn't just how she was posing, it was what she said:


The commercial raised eyebrows because those words were being uttered by a 15-year old. On top of that, Brooke Shields brought along built-in controversy because she had recently played a child living in a brothel in the movie, "Pretty Baby" - in which she was eventually initiated into her mother's profession. She was eleven at the time.

Source: Turner Classic Movies

The explicit underage sexuality of the commercial caused a storm of complaints, and the ad was banned from the air by several networks.

But Calvin Klein just cried all the way to the bank, because sales of his jeans surged to over two million pairs a month, generating revenues of over $100 million inside 12 months.

Even though Brooke Shields professed not to wear underwear, Klein started to design them. For the ad campaign, he hired photographer Bruce Weber to shoot a male Olympic athlete in provocative states of well-endowed undress.

Calvin Klein underwear ad.jpg Source: Calvin Klein

When Klein launched his new Obsession perfume in 1985, the TV commercials showed a woman who was the obsession of a an older man:

Source: YouTube

Another ad in the series showed the same woman as the obsession of a 12 year old boy:

Source: YouTube

While it could be argued there is an undercurrent of pornography in Klein's advertising, a 1997 campaign brought the issue to the forefront.

The commercials showed young people "auditioning" in a low-rent, wood-paneled set, complete with shag carpeting and bad lighting. An off-camera voice flirted with the models:

Source: YouTube

But Klein insisted the ads weren't pornographic, rather they, quote: "Conveyed the idea that glamour is an inner quality that can be found in regular people in the most ordinary setting: it is not something exclusive to movie stars and models."

Consumer advocates disagreed. The American Family Association began a massive letter campaign to retailers threatening to boycott their stores, and Seventeen Magazine refused to carry the print ads. The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into whether or not Klein had violated child pornography laws.

Under mounting pressure, Klein pulled the ads. But by that time, the controversy had turned his jeans into the "must-have" item of the season.

Calvin Klein's advertising strategy has always been to court controversy and cultural outrage. While many brands in the fashion and perfume categories use sex, Klein owns it.

His ads have offended many people, but the resulting sales suggest the use of sex doesn't offend Calvin Klein's target market. In 2010, retail sales of products sold worldwide under the Calvin Klein brand names generated more than $6.7 billion in revenue.

So does sex influence purchasing decisions?

Clearly, it does. But it works on several levels.

Sex can be used to gain attention. Sex can be used to sell attractiveness. This is the bread and butter of the fashion, makeup and fragrance industries.

Some ads use sex to suggest you'll get sex as a result of buying the product. Alcohol ads jump to mind. Some ads use sex to sell low-interest products. Like insurance, or hamburgers.

But the more intriguing question is: Why do we respond to sexual marketing?

Good old Sigmund Freud had a few theories on that. Freud claimed everything people do can be linked back to sexual motivations. Those motives were not acceptable in society, but Freud felt people channeled those sexual desires into outlets acceptable to the outside world by choosing products that signify those underlying yearnings.

It prompted the famous question: When is a cigar just a cigar? Put another way, are high heel shoes just shoes, or are they symbols of sexual preening? Is red lipstick just lip colour, or is it a signal of sexual availability? Is a car just a mode of transportation, or is it a symbol of sexual prowess?

Hyundai once asked that very question in an ad:

Source: YouTube

Sex has also revived dying brands.

Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in New York City, in 1892, by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra H. Fitch.

It catered to sportsmen who liked big-game hunting, mountain-climbing and fishing. The merchandise ranged from tweedy jackets, to camping equipment, to pith helmets, to guns, archery and fishing tackle.

Now - does that sound like the Abercrombie & Fitch you know today?

Not even close.

In 1988, the ailing Abercrombie & Fitch was purchased by a company called Limited Brands. It was a parent company to several fashion stores, including Victoria's Secret. So sex wasn't altogether foreign as a marketing tool.

In 1992, Mike Jefferies took over as President. Jefferies had a vision for A&F, and he wanted to appeal to the American teen market. He wanted the stores to, quote: "Sizzle with sex."

To re-brand the stores, he brought in Calvin Klein photographer Bruce Weber.

The resulting photographs weren't so much cheesecake, as they were beefcake. The overwhelming majority of shots were of near-naked guys:

A&F Ad #1.jpg Source: A&F

Most of those photos appeared in a publication called "A&F Quarterly," and featured pictures of models wearing A&F merchandise and a fair share of non-frontal nudity.

For Christmas 2003, the A&F Quarterly cover promised 280 pages of, quote: "Moose, Ice Hockey, Chivalry, Group Sex and more!"

A&F XMAS COVER.jpg Source: A&F

The imagery raised the ire of various parent and Christian groups - which accused Abercrombie of using soft core porn in its marketing. Of course, the outrage of parents sent rebellious teenagers flocking to the stores.

The strategy gave A&F 48 consecutive quarters of profit growth leading up to the recession of 2009. In 2011, the once ailing Abercrombie & Fitch posted net sales of $2.8 billion dollars.

Clearly, sex sells.

Sometimes, sex even sells sex.

Back in 2010, this erectile dysfunction commercial ran in Australia:

Source: YouTube

According to AdWeek Magazine, the commercial was screened on a high rotation during midday.

It attracted the most complaints of any ad in Australia in 2010. Not only that - but the actress, Libby Ashby, was thrown out of her church for appearing in the ad.

Show a scantily clad woman, and you may get a few complaints. Imply a penis, and you get the most complaints of the year.

Sex in advertising never fails to be a flashpoint.

One of the most interesting cases has to do with a certain Old Milwaukee beer campaign. For years, every Old Milwaukee beer ad was a variation on the same theme - a bunch of guys fishing or camping, culminating in the tagline, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Source: YouTube

One day, years into the campaign, Old Milwaukee's advertising agency decided to have some fun with the tagline. The brand was seen as old and tired. So they decided to create an ad featuring the old tagline, and a new Swedish bikini team:

Source: YouTube

The ad agency maintained it was a parody of all the cliché T&A beer commercials of the 80s. But any way you sliced it, it still put bikini-clad blondes into a beer campaign.

Swedish bikini team poster.jpg Source:

Then the most interesting thing happened.

The women who worked for Old Milwaukee sued their own company.

They felt the Swedish Bikini Team advertising not only objectified women, but it was prompting unwelcome sexual harassment on the floor of the Old Milwaukee plant. The lawsuit alleged the TV campaign and the posters of the bikini team on the plant walls were encouraging men to verbally and physically harass the women on the job.

Parent company Stoh's Brewery responded by saying they had a very "strict and definite policy against sexual harassment" in the workplace.

But as the women stated in their lawsuit, Stoh's was saying one thing in the workplace, and quite another in the marketplace.

They felt the law told the men at Stroh's not to treat women as sex objects, while the company ads told them to revel in the thought.

Playboy cover.jpg Source: Playboy

Ronald Collins, a professor at the Columbia School of Law, put an even finer point on it. He said that when a single voice degrades women in the workplace, we call it sexual harassment. When that voice is amplified for millions of people, we call it advertising.

And there it is.

The former was a legal wrong, and the latter is a legal right.

Until that profound tension gets resolved, advertising and sex will always be uneasy bedfellows.

But that's always been the big question with sex.

How far do you go...

... when you're under the influence.
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