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Michaela Jefferson 

Sex sells, right?

Sex sells, right?

Pictured: Calvin Klein, 'Bella Hadid and Lil Miquela Get Surreal' /YouTube

The world is changing, and brands who found their fame by using sex in the past risk alienating consumers if they fail to keep up with evolving attitudes. Michaela Jefferson discovers how advertisers are embracing the challenge.

"Sex sells" is probably the most famous cliche in advertising. Sex sells lingerie, sex sells jeans, sex sometimes even sells sparkling water, hearing aids and cat food.

But within the last 50 years, sex has catapulted some brands - Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch and Wonderbra, for example - into the mainstream. Others, like Levi's, have used sex to bring their businesses back to life.

However, despite being infamously repressed and tight-lipped about what goes on behind closed doors, perceptions of sex among British consumers have evolved enormously. With the likes of Skins, Sex Education and 50 Shades of Grey, mainstream media has become so saturated with sex that Game of Thrones throwing incest into the mix barely raised an eyebrow.

Meanwhile, following Protein World's controversial "Are You Beach Body Ready?" ad in 2016, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been cracking down on advertisers who sexually objectify men and women in their messaging. In December 2018, the ASA advised advertisers that "sexualisation and gratuitous nudity in ads can often cause serious or widespread harm and offence", and said that advertisers should avoid using sexualised imagery if it is "irrelevant" to the product.

So, with that in mind, can sex still have the selling power for advertisers that it once did?

"Ultimately? Yes and no," Jem Fawcus, CEO of brand strategy partner and insight agency Firefish, tells Mediatel.

"Every well observed element of human life can sell if used in the right way. But if used just for titillation and as an attention grabber, absolutely not."

First of all, brands need to be honest with themselves about whether or not they have "permission" to use sex appeal and sexuality in their communications, he says, as some sectors have more permission than others.

But even brands who found their fame by using sex in the past risk alienating consumers if they fail to keep up with evolving attitudes.

Calvin Klein, for example, came under heavy criticism this month for 'queerbaiting' - faking a same-sex romance or attraction to attract an LGBT+ fan base - by releasing an ad in which supermodel Bella Hadid (who, crucially, identifies as straight) is depicted kissing the virtual influencer Lil Miquela.

And Victoria's Secret, the communication strategy of which has always revolved around portrayals of sex appeal, is another brand which has fallen foul of changing consumer sentiment.

"[Victoria's Secret's] is a sector you would expect to have every excuse to use sex, but it hasn't done it very well," Fawcus says.

"It's stayed as mainly women dressed up pretty much as objects, rather than evolving to reflect all the different facets that sex, sexuality and sex appeal can now encompass. The different gender depictions, the different roles."

The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, the highlight of the lingerie brand's calendar year, has recently drawn criticism both for perpetuating unrealistic body standards and for refusing to represent segments of its market, including disabled, transgender and plus-size women.

Fatally, former CMO Ed Razek last year said he could not see trans-women ever being included in the show as it would ruin the "fantasy". This narrow interpretation of the boundaries of sexual fantasy caused outrage and, tellingly, Victoria's Secret is facing serious financial difficulties.

The brand's comparable sales are in continual decline, with 2018 sales down 8%; shares are trading at $22, a five year low; and in March, the brand announced that it would be closing 53 stores in the US. Meanwhile, market share has sunk from 31.7% in 2013 to 24% in 2018, according to the latest US women's underwear report from Coresight Research.

On the other hand, there are a number of new brands, run by women, which use sexual depictions of the female body in their communications and are thriving, including Fenty Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics and KKW. According to Fawcus, these brands have more permission to use sexualised imagery in their ads because the women behind them (Rihanna, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, respectively) are themselves "empowered".

"It's less about objectification and attention grabbing and more about these women expressing themselves in ways they feel comfortable with and that other people can feel comfortable with," he says, adding that as long as sex is used as "something people can relate to", that is funny or provokes conversation, "that works really well still".

In agreement, Malin Herrstrom, strategy director at Goodstuff Communications, says that whilst sex is "obviously" not suited to all products, it can be effective for some.

"Sex appeal doesn’t need to be defined by the chiselled, oiled up bodies of strangers – it’s about the empowering qualities and quirks of the individual," she says, praising brands like ASOS Face + Body and Nike Dream Crazier for playing to a "21st century definition" of sex appeal and "successfully separating sexy from sexist".

Other brands that have updated their definitions of sex appeal to fit a 21st century definition include some of the most overtly sexual (and retrospectively, sexist) advertisers of all time.

Wonderbra swapped out its "Hello Boys" billboard - which was once voted the most iconic ad of all time - for "Hello Me", a play on the original slogan to refocus on female empowerment and self love.

American Apparel - which ultimately had to file for bankruptcy after a series of scandals over its use of seemingly-underage models in sexually suggestive poses - relaunched online in 2018 with a racially and body diverse cast of adult models who are intended to look sexy, without being scantily clad. The brand is re-opening its first store this year.

And men's deodorant brand Lynx stopped suggesting that its product could attract swarms of bikini-clad women after sales began to freefall, and instead celebrates all facets of masculinity in its "Find Your Magic" campaign, which rejects the idea of conventional attractiveness and suggests that men are most attractive when they are confident in themselves.

"By adopting a more extensive definition [of sex appeal], brands can build cultural relevancy and display a better understanding and authentic connection with their consumers," Herrstrom says.

Male brain vs female brain

For brands who do want to use sex or titillation in their marketing campaigns it's also worth considering how consumers respond to sexual advertising on a neurological level, with attitudes to sex often differing from brain to brain.

According to Neuro-Insight, a neuromarketing and analysis company, men and women have very different neurological responses to the use of sex in advertising, largely due to the way we are "culturally conditioned" to view sex in society.

In a study that recorded the neurological responses of male and female brains towards three different ads that employ sexual themes or titillation - Wrigley's Extra's "Time to Shine", Lloyd Bank's "The M Word" and Original Source's "Original Source x Made in Chelsea" - on average women expressed higher levels of engagement.

Engagement, or personal relevance, is a key driver of long-term memory encoding, which is essential for the success of an ad as it has direct links to brand recall and future purchase decisions. For the Lloyds ad, average engagement was 19% higher for women.

However, although women related better to the content, on an emotional level their brains tended to withdraw - suggesting overall dislike. According to Neuro-Insight, this is because the feeling they were relating to was the sense of awkwardness the actors are expressing around the topic of sex.

Meanwhile, men responded more positively on an emotional level, suggesting they found the ads more entertaining overall. Men showed over 60% higher levels of approach than women during the Original Source ad at the point when Made in Chelsea star Sam Thompson's clothes were stolen, which Neuro-Insight says is because they enjoyed the humour.

Despite this, low levels of personal relevance mean the ads did not code as effectively into memory as they did for women.

"We know there are cultural, contextual differences between the lives of men and women - that's natural," says Shazia Ginai, Neuro-Insight's CEO.

"Because of the cultural context in which we live, our brains will choose to take in or find relevance or have emotional responses to things a bit differently."

Sex will always have a place in advertising, as it is topical and relevant to consumers, she says. However, advertisers have to be "a little bit smarter" about how they communicate when targeting specific audiences.

"When you're targeting for something specific, remember that and take into account the fact that the tone of the sexual content or the tone of the suggestive content will be taken in two different ways."

A higher purpose

So for brands who have permission and who do it well, industry experts remain confident that sex still has power for advertisers.

However, Marie Oldham, chief strategy officer at VCCP Media, says that the "macro trends" for advertising are towards "authenticity, sustainability and engagement" as brand builders - so for advertisers selling products not directly linked to sex, finding another purpose for their brand will likely be more effective.

Mixers brand Fever-Tree in the 1970s may have featured "lovely" ladies preparing G&Ts for their "hard working" husbands, Oldham says, but now the brand is backing the global fight against Malaria.

Meanwhile, Cadbury - which was behind some of the most sexually provocative advertising of all time with its campaigns for Cadbury Flake - now focuses on portraying stories of human kindness.

"Sex will always sell," Oldham adds. "But fortunately for us, brands are finding more meaningful and sustainable platforms on which to build."


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