It would be a fantasy to believe that there might be a day where sex is not involved with advertising. Sex continues to have a prominent place in advertising and it looks like its role is increasing.
Over the course of three decades of ads, one common denominator is sex, sex and more sex. Despite new platforms, such as television ads, ads before movies, mobile ads, banner ads and other ads tailored for the internet, sex continues to be popular for marketing any product. The reason is simple; sex can be quite the effective marketer.
That's the conclusion behind a recent study lead by Tom Reichert, PhD, head of the department of advertising and public relations at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Researchers looked at 3,232 full-page ads that were published in 1983, 1993 and 2003 that ran in popular magazines like Redbook, Esquire, Playboy, Newsweek, Time and Cosmopolitan.
Overall, sexual imagery was used in 20 percent of the ads while the frequency of sexual imagery has increased over three decades. In 1983, 15 percent of the ads featured sex. That number climbed to 27 percent of ads in 2003. Ads were considered sexual based on the amount of skin shown as well as the physical contact between models.
Not surprisingly, alcohol, entertainment and beauty products dominated the sexual imagery landscape. Advertisers put the emphasis on sex when promoting low-risk products that were more likely to be impulse purchases. Of the categories surveyed, sex was used in 38 percent of health and hygiene ads, 36 percent for beauty ads, 29 percent for drugs and medicine, 27 percent for clothing, 23 percent for travel and 21 percent for entertainment.
Researchers noted that while some sexual imagery was used in high-risk products, like banking, those attempts were not as successful when compared to campaigns for low-risk products. Charities and computer companies were the chaste outliers for advertising.
Not surprisingly, many of the sexually-charged images focused on women. For example, of percentage of health and hygiene ads that were sexual, 31 percent focused on females while only seven percent focused on males. Nearly 92 percent of beauty ads in 2003 featured female models.
Sex is effective because, according to Dr. Reichert, "it attracts attention. People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information so ads with sexual content get noticed." Ads establish a cause-and-effect relationship, where buying the sexy product may increase desirability leading to an increased demand by the consumer.
While there are moral issues with the use of sexual imagery, that concern is particularly heightened when used in alcohol ads, notes Dr. Reichert. In 2003, sex was used to sell booze in 37 percent of all advertising, more than one out of three ads was considered sexual.
One of the reasons for this increase sexual imagery could be due to modern desensitization. Ads need to be more sexual in order to shake us from our daily internet surfing or reading habits. The next time you see that scantily clad warrior who wants you to join her on an epic online quest, you'll know why.