E. Chinen, K. Karnicky, C. Lee, R. Mitchell, S. Varner

Media Ethics

November 29, 2004

Final Project


The Ethical Issues Of Using Sex In Advertising


Today we live in a world where sex sells.  Sex is used to sell everything.  Advertisers use sex or sexual innuendoes in their ads to make a memorable impression on consumers.  Unfortunately, many of those impressions are made on America’s children.  Advertisers and marketers do not just create ads to promote their products; they also set a standard of what is attractive to the society.  The public perceives sexuality as attractive and gives the attributions of an attractive person to advertisements with sexual images (Vega).   Using sexuality to sell products has many ramifications to the companies and to the consumers themselves. Many advertisers use sexuality in a subconscious manner which does not allow consumers to actively think about the affect of an ad on their thought process. There are many instances where advertisements use sex to sell and because of this the question of ethics arises and must be debated. The marketing technique of using sex to sell products ranges from alcohol, to perfume, to clothing and portrays the increasing controversy that is arising over this issue in society.           

Advertisements today are saturated with sexual images that affect every sex, race, and age group. Sex in advertisements affects the young because these ads teach them how to look and act sexy, which in the theory of the producer, will create positive reactions for the young people. The sexuality in advertisements may not exactly sell the product but it definitely grabs attention and forces the consumer to stop and look at the product closer. Much of the public has some sort of insecurity in their life. Advertisers play off of this in that they attempt to fill the consumer’s insecurities by their product and a fake sense of love and security. Dr. Moog, in her book Are They Selling Her Lips?, points out that when advertiser link products with sexuality, they lock in with people’s deepest fears of being unlovable; they offer their products and images as tickets to love, when what they’re really providing are more masks for people to hid behind (Moog, 160).  Many advertisers will go to whatever lengths it takes to have attention drawn to their ads. This creates in a sense a ‘sexual showdown’ between advertisers that doesn’t see to have an end in sight.

          So now that it seems that sexuality is inevitable in advertising, the question of ‘is it ethical’ arises. It seems that people today are in desperate need of validation from others and are caught in a media avalanche of narcissistic images of people who essentially feel empty and unlovable beneath their grandiose postures (Moog, 160). The ethic question is whether it is ethical to play off of people’s insecurities to sell a product. It is as if marketers seem to assume that anything that results in raising the gross national product is automatically good for America (Packard 221). This could be true from the producer standpoint that if the product revenue gees up then the economy will go up also. But, the question lies in the fact that since the consumer is giving in to these ads, does that make them good for America?  Management’s ability to contact millions of consumers simultaneously through newspapers, gives them the power as one producer put it, to do good or evil on a scale never before thought of (Packard, 222). The standpoint of many people and consumers is that it is unethical for companies to use these underlying sexual images because they give a false sense of fulfillment to the consumer. These sexual ads make the consumers feel inadequate to the models and thus lower their self esteem. The ads also portray a false sense of reality which sometimes the consumer does not realize. Producers on the other hand, hold a different perspective. They tend to agree with people like Clyde Miller who said that when we learn to recognize the devices of the persuaders, we build up a ‘recognition reflex’ and such a reflex can protect us against the petty trickery of small time persuaders operating in the affairs of everyday life, but also against the mistaken or false persuasion of powerful leaders (Packard, 265). This is true because if the consumer takes but a few minutes to educate themselves on the techniques of advertisers, then they will not fall into the deceptiveness of ads. In virtually every situation that comes up in one’s life, they have the ability to choose what to think and how to act. People also have the right to realize what is going on and if they do then there is no right for them to criticize the ads.

          Alcohol advertisements often incorporate sex or sexual innuendoes into their marketing strategy as a tool to help sell their featured products.  “That's not just a crisp, clean import from Canada you're tasting, its victory, my friend."  A line like this can be quite appealing, as there are few who would not love to discover the taste of victory.  The taste of victory is even better when victory means hooking up with a beautiful woman.  This is the idea behind the Molson advertising campaign.   Along with their beer, Molson is selling something almost every other beer company appeals to; sex.  And why shouldn’t they?  After all sex is the second strongest psychological instinct, just behind self-preservation.  If they can get their audience to associate sex with their beer, a hook is made.

The beer industry’s use of sex is by no means only subtle or subliminal.  Ads commonly show, scantily clad women or uses suggestive and connotative taglines, to appeal to the viewer’s sexual instinct.  Advertisements present women to the viewer as a goal or trophy to win. They are presented as a prize that can only be attained with the “right beverage.”  These beer companies are well known for using sex and exploiting women in their everyday promotions.  While simply watching a football game, one usually finds a highly attractive young lady being swept off her feet by a much less attractive man after he opens the beer of his choice. The women rarely have any lines other than “yes.”  The message is clear, by drinking their beer the person will become irresistible to practically any woman. 

Beer commercials use of sex can be some of the most degrading ads towards women.  The models are shown as beautiful sex objects, portrayed as unintelligent, and who’s only desire is to follow the guy with the “right drink” to bed.  A recent Miller commercial has sparked outrage over its portrayal of women. The ad features two women who begin with their clothes on and are arguing over the taste of Miller Lite.  As the commercial continues, they become more aggressive, they begin to tear off each other’s clothes, and then just so happen to fall in water, making the commercial a glorified wet T-shirt contest.  The women used in the commercials are beautiful have “Barbie doll” bodies that perpetuate the damaging stereotype of what a woman’s body should look like.  Women with big breast and small waists, and are frequently edited to appear even more like mannequins.  Beer ads continue to exploit women’s bodies more than ever cheapening cultural values and making women feel inadequate about themselves.

Women aren’t the only ones used to sell their sex; alcohol ads often feature men.  The interesting thing is that these men are usually selling to other men.  Intuitively, this type of advertising doesn’t make sense.  The marketing though, appeals to men and their own desire to be manly and masculine.  Instead of presenting the mindset of if you drink this, you get her; instead it becomes, if you drink this look how manly you become.  Men subconsciously recognize the model/actor as one who embodies many desirable traits.  Thus a connection is made between the drink and manliness, in the mind of the consumer.  When the consumer goes to the grocery store that small added connection makes a world of difference.

Perfume is another medium through which advertisers incorporate sex to assist in the marketing of their products.  From mall prowlers to eleven year-olds, perfume ads are aimed at any and all, and they have the ads to prove it. As the perfume market gets more and more crowded, retailers and advertisers have to supply more outlandish ads, and provide consumers with a complete product that sticks out from the rest. The only problem is, to what extent are advertisers willing to go in order to show they are a cut above the rest?

There are many tactics to turn the eyes of the consumer, but none as successful as that of the promiscuous draw to viewers. However, where raunchiness ruled the advertising realm only a few years ago, consumers are less inclined to respond to those ads now. Yet, the perfume industry continues to play the “sex card” often and frequently. After all, the ultimate reason for a perfume is to draw in the attention of another. And according to most perfume ads, sex is the way to do it. According to Richard F. Taflinger, “Sex is the second strongest of the psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation. Its strength is biological and instinctive, the genetic imperative of reproduction. However, its 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, 1). Males, according to Taflinger, are biologically built to procreate. Thus, if a woman is young, healthy, and attractive, a man is drawn to her. Women desire relationship and romance. Thus, the cycle of advertising follows the rule of attraction. Men are drawn to ads that portray women the way they want them; women are attracted to the ads because they make them believe that men want women like the ones shown in the ads, and thus will receive a romantic relationship out of wearing that perfume. 

There are many examples of using sexual or provocative images in the perfume industry. According to “Marketing Week”, “Press and poster ads for the launch of fashion designer Alexander McQueen's first perfume, Kingdom, have attracted complaints for being offensive and "irresponsibly showing young naked girls." The ads, which show naked females draped over each other, are being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority” (Marketing Week, 1).  Other ASA actions are also briefly discussed. Even with regulations on advertising, with the power to take out certain ads, perfume companies still choose to display ads that hope to draw in consumers. However, the whole goal of advertising is to bring in something new to attract new customers. Therefore, in more recent years, where the sex in advertising used to be more blatant, the sexual element in advertising is more discreet in its messages.  According to the Economist, "There's a lot less flesh flashed around in advertising…We're in a much more subtle era…People are looking for things that are more real, more wholesome, more pure…Using sex to sell has been overdone and has reached saturation point” (Sex Doesn’t Sell).

Although the shock value of using sex in perfume has gone down in advertising, the element of sex is still there. And perhaps perfume and sex will be forever linked because of the very nature of the purpose of it; to attract and get noticed by the opposite sex. The question of is it ethical to use sex to sell a product is a hard one to get around in the perfume world. Although companies like Ralph Lauren and Clinique are using family and self happiness to display their product, it is not a prominent genre in the perfume industry. However, it is continuing to make strides towards a less provocative advertising scheme, simply because people are burnt out on sex.

Clothing is the last of the three major product categories that commonly use sex or sexual innuendoes in their advertisements.  From Abercrombie and Fitch to Calvin Klein, most of the clothing stores use sex to sell their clothes and interestingly enough, most of the time the models are not wearing any clothes in their ads.  Less than ten years ago, seeing someone’s underwear was considered to be an embarrassment, but today it is not only accepted as a norm, but also relished as a fashion statement (Vega).   The world of advertising has changed and in today’s society, being fashionable can be considered how much you are willing to bare and how little you are willing to wear.

          The most talked about clothing store controversy can be found in Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements.  Abercrombie and Fitch have incurred ongoing criticism for years due to their overtly sexual marketing tactics.  Their store is targeted to college adults and young teenagers, and is becoming increasingly more desired by younger children.  Abercrombie models have the physique that every guy and girl dream of having.  Their ads not only personify the ultimate all-American look, but also the ultimate sex symbol.  Their old quarterly catalogues consisted of words like “orgy”, “group sex”, “group masturbation”, “sex”, “naked”, and “nude”.  Most importantly, they show pictures of naked guys and girls lying on beds or in positions that are better left to the imagination than explained.  It makes the audience wonder if Abercrombie was advertising clothing, the lack of clothing, or just plain sex. 

          Calvin Klein was another company whose advertisers went too far with their ads containing semi-nude adolescents. When the ads were pulled, other that followed were not much better.  However, the ads that were pulled by Calvin Klein left a memorable impression in the memory of children, adolescents, and adults.  Today shopping for men’s underwear can be quite embarrassing, because a consumer must basically stand in front of a bunch of boxes that contain half naked, hard bodied, headless models.  When one looks at the breakdown for casting an underwear model one would discover that advertisers specifically ask for guys with bigger “packages”.  This is not a joke; the marketers clearly want the ads to be about sex.  The question is why?  Does it really matter to guys?  Yes and no.  There are people out there that actually believe that if they buy a certain brand of underwear, they will look like the model in the advertisements but, at the same time most people are able to distinguish between the ad and reality.   

          So why do these advertisers use naked women, men, and sex to sell their products?  Advertising is a mental game.  Ads have a way of changing the way their audience sees themselves and the world that they live in.  The ads tell America what is fashionable and what is not.  Picture someone walking into Abercrombie and Fitch to buy a bottle of their cologne; the current box has the body of a naked man featured on it.  The consumer would not be as inclined to purchase the cologne if there was an ugly fat guy on the box; some might even be persuaded that the cologne does not smell as good because of the revolting picture on the box.  This is all part of advertising strategy.  People think they will have the body or the charm of the guy on the bottle if they buy the cologne.  People will low self-esteem are more likely to buy products with a sexy ad of a man or a woman because they are insecure about themselves, and wearing the product will act as a protective shell for them or as a confidence boost. 

          The use of obvious sexual innuendoes and sexual images is widely used in advertisements that are produced everyday.  One study was done in 1997 to determine the effects of contextually hidden sexual images embedded in advertisements and concluded that the downfall of these ads might be in the disclosure to the public of their existence (Vega).  The summary that resulted from this research was that “the discovery of sexual images embedded in an advertisement significantly affected responses to the advertisement by 147 female and 159 male undergraduates” (Simpson).  This study helps to reinforce the concept that advertisements appeal to the consumer’s emotions and thus, sexy advertisements increase the chances that consumers will buy a product simply because they might have a desire to feel sexier, rather than actual desire for the product.

          There is no clear cut answer to whether sexuality in advertising is ethical or not.  However, there is absolutely no question that it does in fact exist.  Sexuality is incorporated into advertisements that range from a variety of products; most commonly alcohol, perfume, and clothing.  While consumers and producers differ on their ethical opinions of the situation, each has valid points.  But, these points can be easily disputed by the other side. It comes down to a matter of the consumer. The consumers must be able to recognize the existence of sex in advertising and learn to react to it in a way that allows them to make purchasing decisions on the quality of the product itself, rather than the models that advertise the product.  It is up to them to fall into the ‘trap’ some advertisers create for them or to educate themselves so that they do not get caught. The ethics of advertising will never be solved and will continue to be disputed, but the consistency remains that sex in advertising is both heavily prevalent and extremely influential on consumers’ purchasing decisions. Also, it should be noted that in many instances, such as a number of perfume ads, Abercrombie ads, Calvin Klein ads, and alcohol ads, ethical decisions are being made to pull ads and attempts are being made to minimize the presence of sex in advertising.  
















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