Sex and Sensuality in Advertising: Why it is effective and how to refine it


By James D. Roumeliotis

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Tom Ford Ad

Does sex really sell? It seems to sell but commercially, not morally. Sex in the media has been around as long as media itself ‒ though these days at more extreme levels (from subtle to overt).

They’re not quite selling a product but rather an expression of desire – a lifestyle that can be envisioned with the product or service. It attracts the male audience much more than the female as women are objects of sensual desire for men. It’s no wonder that most sultry ads portray bodacious females.

Marketing and branding via sultry imagery and insinuation

Sex is a primitive instinct which qualifies it as an attention-grabbing technique in the media domain. It’s no wonder a weapon of choice for marketers. Sex also transcends product categories ‒ whether it’s a consumer product such as Axe antiperspirant, a recreational pharmaceutical drug like Viagra or an exotic sports car.

Sexually explicit ads can be controversial and some offensive. They are also subject to socio-cultural climate. As long as they don’t get carried away to borderline pornography, but rather refined, preferably subliminal and certainly not violent or masochistic, the sultry ads can be considered playful and memorable. Their original intent is to create an emotional effect on the viewer. This way, the viewer develops a closer bond with the brand and consequently, stronger recognition. Some ads intentionally incorporate a humorous element which generates further interest for its intended audience.

Fragrance ads by some fashion designers are intentionally created to sell a sultry elixir in a bottle. To succeed and spark emotional purchase desire, its creators have raised the stakes by provoking the visual (as well as the olfactory) senses and causing the consumer to believe that he or she will feel erogenous and desirable with those he or she cares to attract. However, there are few controversial ads which have been banned as they seemingly pushed pop-culture buttons a notch too far.

The benefits of sex in advertising

Businesses have found that sexy ads are a great method for “word-of-mouth” and viral publicity. Their attention grabbing messages have the ability to cut through the clutter of ads and command considerably more views. The intended viewers, however, are mesmerized even as they are absorbing the ad’s underlying subliminal messages.

A case in point: In 2000, Heineken launched the “It’s All About the Beer” campaign. One spot, called “The Premature Pour,” shows an attractive and alluring woman pouring Heineken into a glass. As a result, a guy across the bar reacts by pouring his own beer but nervously pours it too quickly and spills foam all over the table, as well as on himself. The sexual content is tacit, yet blunt. The insinuation in this, and other spots in the campaign, yielded a successful outcome causing sales to rise 13% in the first two quarters following their airing.

Popular men’s magazines like Maxim and FHM have experimented often with their covers. By placing a spicy, semi-naked woman on the cover, male readership spikes and outstrips an image of any popular male star whom men can readily relate to.

At Montreal’s renowned steakhouse, Queue de Cheval (French for “horse’s tail”), its eccentric owner, Peter Morentzos ‒ who is known for pushing conventional advertising boundaries, came-up with the idea to host a “Food Porn” event for a charity event. The sold-out $250 per person event featured young hard-body waitresses in skimpy outfits along with shrimps hanging on them which resembled human trays. To promote it, he used the photo of a naked woman’s torso deemed too racy for print in the culinary magazine Gourmet.

What sexually overt ads should avoid

For sexually explicit ads to be effective, they should be created in good taste with respect to the following:

  • Provide a meaningful message through the images;
  • Avoid over-reliance on sex due to saturation as it may lose its intended impact;
  • Should not depict violence, aggression and/or masochism;
  • Shouldn’t be doing it with just any product merely to grab attention but with some relevance utilizing sexual ideas only.

If a brand is willing to risk taking a controversial position to gain attention amongst the crowded product landscape, it should not be excessively overt. It ought to target the brand’s specific market along with not offending its fans and best customers.

Marketers at times tend to step out of line ‒ though, today many consumers happen to be savvy and realize when they’re being manipulated by various media messages. The products touted in the ads may contain sensuous interplay but if they don’t stand-up to their promises and hype, those brands will disappoint and won’t be able to hold onto the customers for long. At the end of the day, the truth in advertising signifies the “trust” factor which is inherently crucial in attracting and retaining clients.

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2 Comments

Filed under controversial advertising, sensuality in advertising, sex and media, sex in advertising, sexy advertising

2 responses to “Sex and Sensuality in Advertising: Why it is effective and how to refine it

  1. Awesome article, really helps. I’ve always hated people using sex in advertising – but that’s just it. Controversy makes for wonders.

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