Sex sells. It's one of the most iconic, timeless, and well-known pieces of advertising advice in the history of marketing. It was practically GoDaddy's entire go-to-market strategy in the '00s, and ad agencies continue to center sexualized images of the female body in campaigns for everything from cars to soda to soap.

But is this truism even true? A growing body of academic work tells us that sex doesn't actually sell, and the vast majority of sexually-charged advertising reproduces deeply patriarchal and stereotypical messages and fundamentally misunderstands how advertising works. And in 2019, we need to change the way we look at sex in advertising.

Sex Sells, But to Whom?

At a fundamental level, believing that "sex sells" in the traditional sense is, to put it lightly, a boneheaded misunderstanding of what ads should do.

Sure, putting an attractive, scantily clad woman on top of a car for 30 seconds certainly grabs people's attention. But we have to ask: whose attention?

That sexy car ad may grab the attention of male viewers, and some may feel better about buying the car. But a Frost & Sullivan report that US women hold more driving licenses than men -- and for that audience, the commercial is not only misguided, but tiresome and degrading. In this case, sex doesn't "sell" for the majority of the target demographic: it actively repels them from the brand.

This is the business case against using sex to sell anything that isn't related to sex, and it's an important one. But on another level, using sex to sell cars isn't just ineffective, it's harmful -- and it's time for brands to change their ways.

What Kind of Sex Are We Selling?

When we think of the phrase "sex sells," we generally picture something like those aforementioned GoDaddy ads: conventionally beautiful women of a single body type, all wearing very little clothing and dancing around to sell a product that has nothing to do with either sex or women.

As we've seen, this isn't effective from an ROI perspective. But even worse, it reinforces played out, reductive, and actively harmful stereotypes. It tells women -- young women and girls in particular -- that your worth is defined by your body and sex appeal, and if you don't fit the mold of a specific, unrealistic body type, you're out of luck.

Ask yourself: is this really the message you want your brand to be sending?

Towards a New Mode of Sexualized Mass Media

Now, I'm not saying we need to purge all sexualized media. Puritanism is no solution either. The problem is that sexuality in advertising has been used in a reductive, one-dimensional, and ultimately sexist way. And in 2018, that isn't just ineffective and morally wrong, but it can actively hurt your brand.

Instead, brands and entrepreneurs need to use sexuality in marketing sparingly, and when they use it, it needs to be empowering to diverse segments of consumers.

One example is the marketing campaigns surrounding indie psychological thriller Look Away. The film's protagonist, Maria (played by India Eisley), switches places with her reflection, who possesses the confidence and charisma that Maria suppresses. While the movie features plenty of violence characteristic to the genre, it's ultimately a metaphor about female empowerment -- both sexual and societal.

Millennial-focused shoe brand, Koio, used this fusion of sexuality and empowerment to their advantage. They became a prominent supporter of the film, teaming up with actress and feminist activist Alexis Knapp to hold a giveaway during a screening. Crucially, the shoes they gave away were a new line designed by female artisans from Italy, and fans were asked to share their own expressions of feminine self-love and courage in order to win.

In this example, Koio is using the sexuality in the movie as a marketing tactic. But they didn't rely on patriarchal stereotypes of female sexuality. Instead, they sought out an empowering angle and teamed up with a genuine feminist activist to push a message that was empowering instead of reductive.

Moving forward, this is how brands need to approach sexuality in advertising. The days of throwing a girl on top of a car and calling it a day are long gone. Instead, brands that use sexualized advertising need to find ways to make it empowering, and to make it speak to diverse audiences -- both for moral and financial reasons.

People say sex sells, but the traditional approach from advertisers and brands is reductive, ineffective, and harmful. It's time for us to reevaluate the role of sexuality in advertising and media in general, moving away from tired stereotypes and towards a representation of sexuality that's empowering and enjoyable for everyone.

If advertisers can figure out how to do that, then maybe, at last, sex really will sell.

Published on: Jan 18, 2019
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