Sex In Advertising Essay, Research Paper
Sex in Advertising
Brett Denita Baskin
World lit 122 – A
December 2, 1996
The use of sex in advertising has become a major selling method in the
society we live in today. It began sixty years ago when a beautiful young woman
introduced the first windproof lighter and a new wave of advertising emerged -
The Pinup Girl. She advertised everything from lighters to laundry soap. She
even recruited for the U.S. armed forces (Parade Magazine; pg 6). Sexuality in
advertising is now a major area of ethical concern, though surprisingly little
is known about its effects or the norms for it’s use (Baltimore Sun; pg. 1G).
Advertisers use of sex appeals has grown and become widely present throughout
the U.S. and really most of the world, but it has never really been clear the
line between offensive and effective advertising. Over the last couple of years,
commercial content, like programming, has gone through a significant maturing
process. Sex has become a driving force. NBC’s vice president for advertising
standards, Rick Gitter, acknowledged that the 1990’s reality can’t be denied
(Baltimore Sun; pg. 1G).
Ann Klein’s company’s ads are some of the most striking ads that are
carried in the main stream media. They have received only a few negative
letters, but they’ve drawn a huge amount of attention (Baltimore Sun; pg. 2G).
“We wanted the women to say, ‘Hey,’ and we have gotten a fantastic response,”
there’s a fine line between doing something new, different and interesting, and
angering your customer with offensive commercials that spoil their commercial
intent. An Ann Klein spot that showed a man kissing a woman and beginning to
unbutton her shirt, was not allowed to air by wary network censors, recalled
company vice president Nancy Lueck (Baltimore Sun; pg 2G). Calvin Klein, an
American clothing manufacturer that courts the glamorous young, drew great
disgrace and shame earlier this year for some particutlarly gamine youth who
lolled about wearing their underpants in a recent campaign, which the network
censors also withdrew (The Economist pg. 53). “Sexiness, as a component of the
good life, is a staple for advertisers ; Coca Cola decorated its drug store
posters at the turn of the century with beautiful young women whom male drinkers
might hope to date and female drinkers might emulate (The Economist pg. 54).”
One has only to pick up any issue of a fashion magazine and page after page is
filled with advertisements attempting to correlate sex and beauty with the
purchase of their products.
The current flood of sex in advertising is often promoted in terms of
fulfilling erotic fantasies and appetites (D’Emilio and Freeman, 1989).
Consumers want to see more, however the use of such appeals is constantly
contested in terms of ethics and morality, much as sexual norms and morals in
general have been contested throughout both American and world history (The
Journal of Advertising, pg 73). Commercials have become a risque as standards
loosen. Networks, in an effort to compete with cable television, have relaxed
thier censorship standards. Advertising standards have always been defined by
the public’s tolerance and the shifting moods of courts and government agencies.
Even though there are concerns about sex and advertising on the air, on
billboards, and in print, it is more accepted now than ever before. However,
ads dealing with the environment or nutrition are coming under much stricter
contraints. The public has become less sensitive to sexy ads, but increasingly
irate about claims involving food and Mother Earth. “While we will tolerate an
expansion in areas that may offend our prurient interest, we are not prepared to
do that with products that effect our quality of life” said Stuart Lee Friedel,
an attorney with the New York based law firm of Davis & Gilbert, who specializes
in advertising (Baltimore Sun, pg 2G).
Advertisers are helping to fuel an unhealthy obsession. “Women’s
dissatisfaction with their bodies is considerably more prevalent now than a
generation ago. “Ours is now a society that is increasingly preoccupied with
appearance and weight,” says Judith Robin,Ph.D., former chairman of the
psychology department at Yale University, currently president of the University
of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a recognized authority on body image.
Magazine covers, TV shows, music videos and movies tend to feature very thin
women over those with more realistically filled-out figures. Advertisers want
people to feel dissatisfied with our current appearances, so they will be more
inclined to purchase their products that offer improvements. ” The media now
exposes us to this single ‘right look’, and the beauty industry promises that
anyone can attain it,” writes Dr.Robin, who is also the author of Body Traps:
Breaking the Binds That Keep You from Feeling Good about Your Body (Food And
You; pg. 33). Shame often hinders would be gym goers for fear of embarrassment.
Health club advertisers often showcase scantily clad, sculptured bodies working
out. Over weight people find it difficult to picture themselves beside those
people – the invariably young and trim (Atlanta journal/Constitution; pg. G3).
Advertisers for car makers appeal to the male population by insinuating that a
man is judged by the power behind his wheels therefore, big strong men drive big
strong trucks, and how he handles the road, with his powerful new wheels, will
have a positive influence on his masculinity (Essence, pg 93). The back pages of
magazines are flooded with ads for sex toys designed to enhance your sex life.
Vitamins claiming to give you more stamina and lingerie worn by beautiful
voluptuous models whose assets do not come with the product. Still, the
advertisers hope to convey the subtle message that if you buy their product
you’ll achieve those results. Purfume manufactuers advertise their products
will attract the opposite sex, mask body odor and invite more itimate touch (
ADCULT USA, pg144). Once even routine ads for some practical, everday items
were shunned. “Hygiene products, deodorants, laxatives… and simular products
are generally not accepted, ” the NBC code of 1943 noted. Today women can
model lingerie or even breast feed a child (as seen in a Gerber ad) on
television. Consider a much noted A Calvin Klein ad insert in New York and Los
Angeles editions of Vanity Fair, was described by Advertising Age as “boy meets
girl, boy meets boy, boy meet self”. That’s merely the most striking example of
a vast range of jeans, lingerie and cosmetics ads that once would have been
relegated to Playboy or Penthouse, but now are appearing in upscale mainstream
publications ( Baltimore Sun, pg 3g).
Toy manufacturers are also capitalizing on the use of sex to sell
products. Video games, which have a largley teenage male following, use graphic
and sexually stimulating graphics to portray their female characters. Lude
advertisements such as “Engage in thousands of exciting relationships with total
strangers without wearing anything made of latex” (NEXT Generation, pg 72), and
“Sometimes having a killer body just isn’t enough, you’ll need tough studs and
big bolts” (NEXT Generation, pg 91) appeal to their adolescent fantasies.
There are people who consider this form of advertisment to be in poor taste
because of the advertising techniques. They oppose advertisements with sexual
overtones and advertisements with adult content that appear in media available
to and directed toward children (Advertising, pg 67). Even the foreign market
of developing countries such as war torn Cambodia are being flooded with the
promise of the good life. Beer commercials in Cambodia show fit young men
leaping and sprinting while promises of physical and intellectual prowess flash
on the television screen. In one popular spot, a man cracks an egg into his
beer, and the yoke transforms into a woman, he drinks down the attractive brew
with a slurp ( Yahoo! News, yahoo.com/headlines/961129).
The Spanish government introduced legislation in April, 1986 to ban
misleading, unfair, or irrational advertising. The bill would also regulate the
use of testimonials, comparative advertising, and the material that is offensive
to the dignity of women or fails to respect the rights of children. ( Edward
Mark Mazze, Britannica Annual 1989, pg 265). The United States has no such
legislation, except for strict laws against child pornography. An attempt to
introduce such legislation would be met with stern opposition from the corporate
world, whose industries profit from such advertising. Advertising agencies have
taken advantage of the freedoms of speech and expression guaranteed by the
Constitution. Product advertising continues to push the acceptance of sexually
explicit materials to the limit in it’s race for higher profits. Sexuality has
become a national trade mark, the symbol of American commerce. Naked, semi-
naked, dressing and undressing women fill not only films but the pages of
magazines advertising food, clothing, automobiles, hotels, refrigerators,
chewing gum and everything which in the opinion of the business man would
represent the vital interest of people. Advertisements have never been granted
the unqualified rights of free speech held by books, articles or news programs.
The indecency of American and world wide advertising has become indescribable.
Sex in advertising will always be an issue of ethical concern as long as peoples
view remain diverse and companies profit from those diversities.