Sex Sells, Who Buys?

It’s already commonly recognized that most of shopping decisions are motivated by subconscious irrational impulses. One of the most powerful and decision-driving desire is a strive for being attractive to potential sexual partners, so employing eroticism in commercials and prints can make people pay more attention to the ads and products they promote. Shoppers start perceiving the brand as a tool to achieve the same sexy look, behaviors and public success as the models in the clips and prints, they very often put the real value of the item below its ability to add this much wanted component to the their own image.

Today, in the era of abundance on the market, when every niche has a variety of offerings to suit any taste, people tend to choose products which help build their own personal brand and correspond with their ideal picture of themselves. And since sexuality is an integral part of any modern hero, consumer labels actively use this theme to market their products. This article provides insight into various approaches of using erotic theme in ads for different consumer groups, and highlights the ways of employing sex to support social goals.

What Does Sex Sell?

In mid-2012, the University of Georgia revealed a study, which showed that the number of sexual ads appearing in magazines had increased over the past three decades. The research of over 3,232 full-page ads published in 1983, 1993 and 2003 in popular magazines Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Esquire, Playboy, Newsweek and Time, discovered that 20% of the ads featured sexual imagery, 27% of all ads in 2003. So, the number of erotic-focused ads is growing, but how do they contribute to the brands’ sales?

Sexual imagery in the advertising is used to tap into people’s deep desires and emotions, it deals with their wish to self-indulge and attract others, so most of the goods promoted with the erotic connotation refer to beauty, health and hygiene, apparel, accessories, food and drinks categories. Since such advertising deal with irrational wishes, it promotes low-risk products that can be purchased without thorough consideration, on impulse.

It has been generally believed that when it comes to more expensive, technology items, eroticism-driven choices have to give way to more thoughtful and grounded decisions, but in fact it’s not always so. With costly goods, such ads trigger emotions, heat desires up, which in their turn push the consumers to start considering the purchase on a rational level. The goal is to use sexual drive to make consumer to fall in love with the product, distantly, and then go and reach it.

In the middle of the 20th century, Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter, who arrived to the USA to become one of the most prominent figures in the history of advertising, suggested that the typewriting machines should be modeled on the female body, “making the keyboard more receptive, more concave.” Isn’t that what we see now in cases with smooth textures, sleek designs and highly responsive screens iPads and Galaxy Tabs, which seem to be the best lovers in terms of emotional connections? Automobiles, another group of costly products, are also often advertised using sexually implicit ads starring hot models with fabulous bodies. The prints and commercials are declaring that “this car will make you a hunk,” contribute to your prestige and success. These promises are not actually cried out loud, but are clearly communicated with promotions that may even have no direct references to sexuality.

Photo: Ads by Perrier (upper left), SKYY (lower left), Lucky Strike (upper right), MGB sports car (lower right), click to enlarge , click to enlarge

Whom Does Sex Sell?

Traditionally, in advertising brands appeal to the target audience of their product, but it’s not a rule at all. There are a plenty of prints addressing to female when selling men-focused products, including cars, food and body care products, and vice versa. So, there are two general types of sexually related advertisements—reaching target audience and reaching partners who influence the decisions of the target audience. Both tactics work well, still the last one seems to be more refined.

Reaching Decision-Makers

This is the most popular approach. The idea behind such promotions is simple: the people in the ads arouse the targeted audience. Though the approach is rather primitive, it works from the time immemorial. Sexy advertisements created for male audience sometimes feature some kind of a step-by-step guiding strategy, teaching men what to do to reach women, while promotions for female are more about creating an atmosphere of love and beauty, without any “go there, do this, get that” instructions.

Female consumers are enchanted by handsome flirting guys (like a Diet Coke Hunk or the Zesty Guy) in the commercial or associate themselves with the gorgeous young and sexy Victoria Secret angels with perfect skins and bodies. Watching men-oriented ads, male consumers want to buy product to become as bold and seductive as AXE guys, dress in the same stylish way as models in fashion and fragrance ads and win the hearts of ladies in the car commercials (like the blended-in models in the Lexus project or girls competing with Nissan Juke).

Some brands are promoted not as tools to get ladies, but already as a man’s sexual trophy. Stella Artois treats its beer brand as a “thing of beauty” making parallels between the lager and a tender beautiful French girl, implicitly saying “can’t date the girl? date the beer and spend some precious moments with it.” Some brands give a simple explicit recipe of winning girls—for instance, in its recent promotion “What Women Want,” Gillette taps three ladies who share their preferences on men’s body hair styles, while the latest campaign “I’d FAQ Me” from Philips Norelco explains how a guy can become extremely attractive by managing his body hair.

Sex as it is usually sells mostly to men, while women are more influenced by romantic touch in the ads. Still, some female/male brands, especially clothing ones, employ sex (nearly porn) theme in the ads to shock the public. The most notorious labels here are Diesel and American Apparel, which use sex to draw attention to their quite traditional clothing. While Diesel usually uses humor in their ads (the series of “Sex Sells” posters is an exception), American Apparel just releases prints with young people in provocative poses and is often banned for it (in early April, 2013 its new casual wear imagery was deemed offensive by ASA).

Reaching Decision-Influencers

Sometimes, it’s more effective to appeal to those who support the purchasing decision than the ones who will actually use the product. This idea is clearly explained in Old Spice’s legendary “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign that actually sells the men’s products to women, who then give the goods to their boyfriends and husbands to make them superheros. The same approach was used in a disguised manner in the latest promotion of the H&M’s David Beckham Bodywear line—the ad featured the half-naked sex symbol of our days as an action hero modeling underwear. The commercial arrived just before Valentine’s Day, obviously inviting women to buy items from the new collection as a gift to their partners.

This approach roots in the advertising trick implied back in the first half of the 20th century by the above mentioned Dichter, who suggested to put ads of Chrysler’s Plymouth convertibles in the women’s magazines. The idea behind it was that while men adored convertibles, they typically chose cars with their wives, who influenced them to purchase sedans. So the goal was to change the female’s attitude towards the convertible. And the brand did it by emphasizing that with this vehicle it would take “only a few minutes” to feel at home with the new Plymouth. The campaign was a huge success.

Now, that the same-sex relationship and marriages is already quite a common thing, brands should do something to target these consumers as well. Here, lesbian women advocate for female brands, and gay male are expected to support male offerings, no switches. Since for some people same-sex relationship still is a taboo, featuring gay and lesbian couples is already a shock factor, no sex is required. Gap, McDonald’s, Toyota and Amazon’s Kindle have already stepped into this niche with their ads to target this group of consumers. Still, some brands add sexual connotation to the story along from starring the same-sex couples—for instance, Dolce&Gabbana, Levi’s (here and here) and Eclipse target LGBT shoppers with ads featuring a bigger homo-erotic component.

When Sex Is Too Much

The line between the eroticism and porn is very thin. Some brands don’t feel when it’s enough and step into the danger zone of depicting explicitly pornographic images in their racy advertisements. Instead of arousing and creating some fleur, such ads can offence the audience and generate a wave of aggressive feedback. Brands run a great risk when they use sexual references in ads for products that can be consumed by kids or play around a socially banned theme like prostitution.

For example, Orangina, the citrus-flavored soda drink, featured hyper sexual, horribly looking hybrids of animals and humans with highlighted sexual human parts women’s like breasts, round waists and hips, men’s ab muscles, etc. An ad for the Hercules ice-cream brand from Ukraine depicted a long-tongued mom, who licks the top of the ice-cream in her son’s hand. Brands like Sisley, Burger King, Tom Ford, Agent Provocateur, PUMA and many more used porn references in their prints that first shock and then disgust. Still, the goal is reached—love it or not, these ads make people talking about the brand.

Sex for the Social Good

Sex can foster positive change in people’s life outside their beds. Health-focused organizations can use this theme to invite consumers to think about important things, from their health to social and ethical practices. The slogan of the American counterculture of the 1960s, “Make love, not war,” lives on in modern promotions, launched by non-profit groups.

PETA, one of the most influential organizations advocating for animal protection, uses a lot of half-naked female bodies in its campaigns. The Ukraine-based feminine protest group Femen organizes controversial “topless” protests against sexual exploitation of female as well as a range of social, national and international topics. In 2011, HIV Foundation/AIDS Council of Finland lunched a hilarious print and video campaign dubbed “Places” to raise awareness about the dangers of unprotected sex, using the red Google “places” balloon. In fact, the number of adverts and promotions build on the sexual theme and advocating for conscious intimate decisions is huge, and the campaigns by AIDES add a lot to this heritage with the horny cat Smutley and the sexy fingers online game. In 2011, MTV also released a cartoonish campaign highlighting the idea that sex is not an accident, and people should always use a condom.

Genuinely sex-related brands such as Durex and Playboy infuse their promotions with humor and technology to accentuate their friendly, fun nature or even position itself as a companion, a “life enhancer.” The condom brand has recently introduced the SOS service, designed to provide condoms pizza-style, with all respect to the client’s anonymity, and it has also introduced hilarious sensor-equipped men’s and women’s underwear for sexual foreplay—the brand offered its Australian Facebook fans to win an ultimate Fundawear experience.