Several professors at Ball State University designed a study to investigate what members of Generation X, a group of senior students, found "objectionable" in 35 student-selected magazine advertisements. Prior to the study, the researchers compiled a list of what they anticipated as possible issues that might be classified as objectionable advertising:
1. Exaggerated claims (puffery and unfair comparisons).
2. Stereotypes (inappropriately portraying women and minorities).
3. "Unpopular" products (cigarettes, alcohol, birth control, etc.).
4. Political, religious and social messages.
5. Nudity, sexual explicitness and suggestiveness.
Amazingly, the overwhelming majority of advertisements submitted by students fell into category 5-ads that featured nudity and sexual explicitness. Most of the ads found to be objectionable were targeted to them-Generation X.
Two different groups of students in the study were identified. One group, predominantly male, was labeled "chauvinists" and the other, predominantly female, "feminists."
The chauvinist group objected most to ads featuring sexual explicitness and social issues. Two campaigns that stood out were for Wilke Rodriquez (sexually explicit positions) and Benetton (social issues). The Wilke Rodriquez ads showed men and women in sexually compromising situations. The Benetton ads graphically displayed scenes of death; one of the Benetton ads featured a picture of an electric chair and another showed an AIDS death bed scene with the victim resembling a Christ figure.
Feminists objected most to those ads degrading women and featuring sexual explicitness. Again these ads included Wilke Rodriquez featuring scenes of models in sexual situations and an Adam's Boots ad that featured a woman on her hands and knees licking the floor. An ad for Cafe Tabac showing two women passionately kissing was also found objectionable. In all three cases, feminists found these campaigns degrading to women.
In personal interviews, both groups felt there are limits to tastefulness and questioned how much sexual explicitness should be tolerated in advertising. They particularly object to indiscriminate use of sexual appeals; that is, sexual situations that had little or nothing to do with the product being advertised.
The students objected less to ads that tastefully presented nude models or sexual suggestiveness that were clearly related to the brand being advertised (e.g., Obsession). They also expressed the belief that Benetton's use of social issues was simply a "shock" method of attracting attention and therefore inappropriate and objectionable.
Advertisers should take heed and practice safe sex in designing their campaigns. They should not assume that "sex sells." Sexual appeals may be appropriate for some products and brands but not for others. They should be aware that even the image-conscious members of Generation X do not like being manipulated with irrelevant sexual themes.
Mr. Gustafson, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., conducted the study along with Prof. Mark Popovich, Assistant Prof. Johan Yssel and student Bart Woodley.