The origins of sexual appeals in U.S. advertising can be traced to medicinal products advertised before the Civil War. These ads featured wood engravings of women's faces, often the only illustrations on the page, to attract the reader's attention.
During the 1890s, ads displaying women's ankles and, later, the backs of their knees, were considered quite provocative. As advertisers continued to push the boundaries of acceptability, subtle forms of nudity began to appear. In 1931, a magazine ad for Listerine deodorant featured a photograph of a nude woman's back and the side of her breast.
Woodbury soap featured what is thought to be advertising's first full-figure b&w photograph of a naked woman (shot by Edward Steichen) in 1936. Many of the early uses of sex in advertising were in ads for fragrances, beauty products and undergarments.
In the 1940s, ads for Springmaid Fabrics' underwear and sheets marked a turning point in the use of sex in advertising. Elliott Springs, president of Springs Mills, believed that sex could be used effectively as long as it was used intelligently and subtly masked with double meaning.
He also believed that sex attracted attention, but that for the ad to be effective the viewer needed to be rewarded by a clever interplay between the copy and the image. The ads used a mixture of double entendre, sexual innuendo and images of scantily clad women to sell products.
In 1956, Foote, Cone & Belding launched Miss Clairol, the first one-step home hair-color product, with the tagline "Does she or doesn't she?" The campaign was a landmark in advertising, partially because it sounded more provocative than it was. Ogilvy & Mather, however, had less success with a spot for Ban deodorant, which represented nudity through a montage of classical sculptures (accompanied by copywriter Reva Korda's voice-over copy: "In the mature male and the mature female. . . . ").
The "creative revolution" of the 1960s extended the boundaries of sex in advertising. To the grind of stripper music, a sexy Scandinavian blonde named Gunilla Knutson urged men to "take it all off"—with Noxzema shaving cream. Continental Airlines' stewardesses promised to "move our tail for you."
One of the most sophisticated uses of sex was in an Ogilvy & Mather spot for Paco Rabanne men's cologne in which a man, portrayed as a bohemian artist in his loft, is pictured lying in bed in the morning chatting on the phone with the woman he had just spent the night with.
A different idea of sex in advertising gained attention in 1972 with the publication of "Subliminal Seduction" by Wilson Bryan Key, who argued that advertisers "seduced" consumers with barely perceptible naked body parts and the word "sex" airbrushed into advertising images.
In the early 1990s, the trend toward increasingly overt sexuality in advertising was abruptly reversed when the Stroh Brewery retracted ads for Old Milwaukee beer featuring the "Swedish Bikini Team." Stroh's employees had filed a sexual harassment suit claiming that the ads fostered a sexist work environment. The ads also prompted protests from feminist groups.
Controversial Calvin Klein images
Few advertisers have created as much controversy around the use of sexual imagery as has Calvin Klein. Repeatedly, Klein has been accused of pushing the boundaries of acceptability regarding sexual explicitness in its ads. In a controversial 1980 TV spot, 15-year-old Brooke Shields, clothed in Calvin Klein's CK jeans, seductively proclaimed, "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
Since then, the company's ads for underwear and fragrances have featured naked models in provocative poses. In 1995, the marketer canceled a campaign that featured adolescent-looking men and women modeling CK Jeans while an older man told them to "take it off" and "dance around."
Underwear and lingerie constitute another product category that uses sex to sell. Provocative ads for Wonderbra were largely responsible for first-year sales of more than $120 million.
One persistent criticism of this kind of advertising is that it is typically sexist in its representations of women. Most sexual ads portray women as objects of male fantasy and desire. These ads instruct women on how to look attractive to men, or they employ sexy women to represent successful goal attainment for men. Critics argue that these images are harmful because they encourage the perception that the primary purpose of women is to be sexually alluring. Emphasizing this characteristic to the exclusion of others such as intelligence, personality and ability ultimately affects attitudes toward and treatment of women.
Gender can also be an important determinant of the effectiveness of sex in advertising. In many respects, men and women respond similarly to this type of advertising strategy. Both respond favorably to provocative images of the opposite sex.
Men and women also respond similarly to images of couples engaged in intimate behavior in ads. It is important to note that the most provocative images of women typically appear in women's magazines. The same is true of male images in men's magazines. These images are not designed to stimulate sexual arousal but rather serve instructional purposes; they teach men and women how to be sexually appealing.