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Sex and Advertising

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

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Fig. 1.

Puffy Red Lips Bring Sex into the Equation (circa 1985)1

1. Introduction

A consideration of sex and advertising necessitates the clarification of terminology at the outset. Sex, gender, sexism, sexuality, and so on, often lack clarity and specificity in everyday language. However, scholars and scientific researchers generally restrict the meaning and usage of such terms so as to facilitate discussion and understanding of the complex issues they involve. inline graphic inline graphic

In this context, sex refers to the biological (and thus innate) differences between males and females. These differences are noticeable at birth in the anatomical as well as genetic differences between human individuals. Although a relatively small number of people do not fit this generalization, the vast majority is either distinctively male or female. inline graphic inline graphic

By contrast, gender refers to the cultural (and thus learned) interpretation of what it means to be male or female. The operative terms here are masculine and feminine as opposed to male and female. Ever since the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead reported differences2 in the cultural expectations associated with masculinity and femininity in various South Pacific cultures, the age-old belief that biology is destiny began to crumble and give way to a more flexible understanding that cultures define appropriate roles, behaviors, and expectations for males and females. inline graphic inline graphic

These distinctions become confused in everyday discussions where the term gender often operates as a euphemism for sex. What is your gender? is a contemporary alternative to the more precise What is your sex? The intent of both is to ask whether a person is biologically male or female. However, there is no agreement in contemporary usage on the better way to elicit this information. For example, note the difference in the way the question is posed on the following forms: inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 2.

The State of Virginia Driver's License Application Asks the Applicant to Indicate Gender3

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Fig. 3.

The US Passport Asks the Applicant to Indicate Sex4

All this is further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the male/female distinction, the term sex also refers to sexual behavior and sexual relationships. In the context of advertising, this latter usage of the term sex is of utmost importance because of the high degree of erotic imagery and sexual associations used in promotional messages. inline graphic inline graphic

Sexism as a term is analogous to racism (the negative stereotyping of individuals based on their membership in a social category based on skin color). Sexism in the context of advertising refers to the assumption that women share certain characteristics with other women and men with other men by virtue of their biological sex differences. Such essentialized characteristics are typically perceived as negative or degrading in the context of sexist representations of females or males. inline graphic inline graphic

Read about advertising and gender elsewhere in ADText .

In the study of advertising and society, certain issues regarding sex, gender, and sexism are of paramount importance. Three of the most important are: (1) how advertising represents gender, (2) how sex is used to sell, and (3) how advertising depicts sexual behavior and relations. Each of these is examined in ADText. Advertising's representation of gender is the subject of the ADText unit on "Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertising." The use of sex in selling and what advertising tells us about sex are discussed in this unit. inline graphic inline graphic

2. Erotic Imagery Becomes a Part of Advertising

Visit the New York Public Library's collection of cigarette trade cards.

Some of the earliest instances of sex and selling are the advertising trade cards (collectible cards similar to baseball cards) that many 19th-century tobacco companies put in packages of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. In short, sex and advertising goes back to the beginnings of modern advertising in the latter decades of the 1800s. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 4.

These Daring Women Showed Male Smokers Shocking Amounts of Exposed Skin for the Times (circa 1885-1895)5

Although these and other ads employed erotic imagery in 19th-century advertising, it is Woodbury's Facial Soap that is most frequently cited in advertising lore as the first important instance of sex and selling. The tag line, "A Skin You Love to Touch," suggests intimacy. A man lightly embraces the female model. She is clearly the object of his desire—and the copy suggests that it is her delectable skin that has enhanced the relationship. As the story has been handed down, when this ad appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal, several readers considered it so risqué and inappropriate that they promptly cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 5.

This Woodbury's Soap Ad Pushed the Limits of Erotic Representations at the Time (1915)6

From there, Woodbury's continued to push the limits of what was possible and what the public would accept. In the 1930s, they used a totally naked model (no pubic hair, no genitals of course—all that would have to wait for Playboy in the 1960s). This was an era in which health, fitness, and nudism had entered American culture, and this ad pays homage to these changes in interests and sensitivities. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 6.

Woodbury's Used a Fully Nude Model in 19367

By the 1940s, Woodbury's recycled its famous image of a couple embracing in promoting its soap. However, this time the image shows a more dramatic and fiery embrace. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 7.

A Further Example of Woodbury's Erotic Imagery (1946)8

There are three excellent sources that offer image-based histories and commentaries on the evolution of sex in advertising. They are Professor Reichert's website, an essay by the Gallup and Robinson Organization, and Reichert's 2003 book, The Erotic History of Advertising .

These older examples tell an important story that, (1) sex and advertising goes back a very long way, and (2) the kinds of imagery that are acceptable have changed with the times. However, this is a case of advertising not merely reflecting the social mores of the times, but often challenging them and setting new standards of sexual license and erotic propriety. inline graphic inline graphic

Later years saw expansion of erotic appeals in ads, as well the considerable publicity they generated as newspapers, editorials, and letters commented on them. The story is one of continually pushing the limits of erotic appeals until we arrive at the present situation where erotic imagery is a mainstay of advertising.9 inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 8.

The Promise of Sex is Still Sold with Touchable Skin (2007)10

3. Does Sex Sell?

Visit Professor Reichert's website for further discussion of a definition of sex in advertising.

When marketers discuss sex and advertising, the central issue is invariably: Does sex sell? Advertising professor Tom Reichert spent more than a decade researching the history of sexual images and references in order to write The Erotic History of Advertising (2003). Before he was able to provide an answer to this question, he had first to define what sex in advertising is. inline graphic inline graphic

Defining it proved no simple matter, but here are his basic guidelines:11

  • Sex in advertising is often characterized as showing attractive models in stages of undress, models displayed or posing decoratively, or models engaged in suggestive behavior, either alone or with others. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 9.

This Pose, Including the Exposed Parts of the Model's Body, Reads as Alluring and Inviting (2009)12

  • Sex in advertising often employs sexual double entendre, innuendo, subliminal sexual imagery, and sex-related promises. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 10.

The Famous Tag Line, "Does She or Doesn't She?," Is about Hair Coloring but Contains Sexual Innuendo as Well (1957)13

  • Sex and advertising often revolves around clothing—what models are wearing or not wearing. Sexy clothing and revealing displays of the human body represent a fundamental type of sexual information. inline graphic inline graphic

This Classic Super Bowl Spot Plays on Male Desire for Beautiful Women in Revealing Clothing (1992)
Video 1

This Classic Super Bowl Spot Plays on Male Desire for Beautiful Women in Revealing Clothing (1992)14

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  • Sex and advertising is also about what's under the clothing, even the underwear. Beauty and good looks turn people on, and advertisers use attractive models to draw attention. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 11.

This Model's Bronzed and Cut Body Contrasts with the White Underwear Through Which the Outline of His Genitals Is Visible (2007)15

  • Sex and advertising is also about what models do that is sexy. Models can pose seductively. They can communicate sexual interest by flirting with the viewer or with someone else in the ad. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 12.

This Model's Pose is Inviting; The Eye Contact with the Viewer Seals the Deal (2010)16

  • Sex and advertising often employs images of closeness between a couple. These images can include touching, kissing, or simulation of sexual behavior. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 13.

This Couple is Engaged in an Intimate Sexual Embrace (2009)17

  • Sex and advertising can be enhanced by production elements such as suggestive photography, edits and pacing in the commercials, sexy music, lighting effects, and romantic locales. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 14.

The Camera Focuses on the Woman's Genital Area (2006)18

  • Sex and advertising can be based on sexual language and words. Phrases that have innocent meanings can be transformed when they are accompanied by sexual images. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 15.

Word Play Links Late Night Hours, this Beverage, and Sexual Availability (circa 1990)19

  • Sex and advertising paradoxically sometimes results from what is not shown in an ad but is suggested in some way, such as only the outline of a woman taking her clothes off. inline graphic inline graphic

Read a fuller statement by Reichert on: "Does Sex in Advertising Work?"

After reviewing evidence from the mid-1800s to the early 2000s, Reichert concludes that using sex in advertising has frequently, but not always, increased consumer interest and often aided in the selling products and building strong brand identities. However, he notes that academic research on its effects has yielded equivocal and inconsistent conclusions, making it exceedingly difficult to render a clear verdict on its effectiveness. Despite this caveat, Reichert believes that several companies—such as Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret—have succeeded in linking erotic appeals with commercial success. Likewise, public response has varied considerably. Some consumers respond with their pocketbooks to the sexual promises in ads while others complain that sexual imagery in ads oversteps the bounds of propriety. inline graphic inline graphic

4. What kind of sex does advertising sell?

The advertising images that follow are indicative of many (but certainly not all) of the things that advertising says about sex. Taken together, they indicate not only the typical but also the extremes to which advertising has gone in linking eroticism to the selling process. These ads not only attempt to sell various products (soap, beer, cars, underwear, etc.) by using erotic imagery but also—if perhaps somewhat unwittingly20—sell us ideas about sex itself. They tell us what is sexy, they show people in various states of love-making, they idealize and idolize certain kinds of bodies over others, they depict "vanilla" as well as "alternative" forms of sexual behavior, and so on. In short, the ads not only sell products but also sell a particular conception of sex itself. inline graphic inline graphic

What does sex in advertising sell? Above all else, advertising images have depicted heterosexuality as the norm throughout. There are exceptions as we shall see, but the most frequent representations are the one-male, one-female type. Moreover, it is usually the male who assumes the more dominant position and role, while the female is generally receptive and somewhat passive. Most typically, the ad suggests and hints at sexual relations between the couple—often showing them in some sort of sexual foreplay. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 17.

This Ad is Representative of the Many Images of Male Dominance over Women (circa 2000)21

However, some ads go so far as to leave little doubt that the couple is engaged in sexual intercourse. Here a man stands before a woman whose widespread legs admit him to her most intimate body zone. Their pose suggests the heightened excitement of a "quickie" for which she has not yet had the time to remove all of her clothes. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 18.

Heterosexuality is the Traditional Norm in Advertising (2002)22

Nowadays, this heteronormativity is giving way to a variety of non-"traditional" alternatives. It is common to see one man with multiple female partners, a pattern that appears to be a widely shared sexual fantasy among heterosexual men. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 19.

This One-Man, Multiple-Women Image Reflects a Widely Shared Fantasy of Heterosexual Men (2006)23

However, there are also situations in which the female partner assumes a more active and dominant role, and situations in which the one-male, one-female relationship gives way to a variety of other possibilities. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 20.

This Woman Assumes an Active Role in the Erotic Encounter (2009)24

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Fig. 21.

One Woman With Multiple Men Is a Much Less Common Image in Ads (2009)25

Gay relationships have also entered the world of sex as depicted in ads. They are to be found in ads for beer, over-the-counter medicines, life insurance, tires, and just about everything else. In a world so dominated by heteronormativity, it would be remiss to speak of a parallel homonormativity, because such depictions are still relatively few in number compared to the much more frequent imagery of heterosexuality. Advertisers are careful about their placement of such ads as well. Venues for depictions of gay relationships are restricted. inline graphic inline graphic

Read about the protests against the Tylenol ad showing two men in bed with one another.

The following ad for Tylenol shows two men in the same bed close enough to be touching. Lest there is any doubt about their relationship, the ad speaks of them as boyfriends. This particular ad ran in The Advocate, a gay-oriented magazine. However, a fundamentalist Christian group found the ad and organized a write-in campaign to the company complaining about its apparent support of the gay lifestyle. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 22.

These Two Men are Clearly Partners (2005)26

Not all depictions of close relationships between men are necessarily gay. The terms homosocial and homoerotic describe some of these other possibilities. Homosociality is the situation of men being in close or intimate relationship with other men and does not imply either homosexuality or heterosexuality whereas homoerotic refers to erotic imagery that depicts same-sex people in a sexualized manner. inline graphic inline graphic

Abercrombie & Fitch, known for pushing boundaries of sexual imagery, often depicts homosociality and homoeroticism in its advertising. The image below shows two men lying together on a bed or blanket in their underwear. An innocent reading of the ad suggests that A&F sells different styles of underwear. Their relationship is clearly homosocial, but their touching, intimacy, and exhibitionism suggests the possibility of homoeroticism as well. Most significantly, the ad confronts the cultural taboo concerning homophobia by permitting extreme closeness between men, sharing intimacy (even if it is not specifically sexual), and expressing emotional warmth. Perhaps the appeal of this kind of display for straight men is the relief it offers from strict do's and don'ts when it comes to relating to other men. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 23.

This A&F Ad Challenges Conventions (1996)27

Critics of advertising decry fashion's objectification of women and its glamorization of violence, abuse, and even rape. Search "objectification of women in fashion advertising" on the Internet.

The world of fashion appears to have an easier time pushing all kinds of limits in its depictions. Lesbian chic is everywhere.28 Women dominate men. Men dominate (and abuse) women. It almost seems anything goes when it comes to fashion. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 24.

Lesbian Chic Models and Clothing in a Jean Paul Gaultier Ad (2009)29

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Fig. 25.

This Sisley Ad Eroticizes Abuse (circa 2010)30

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Fig. 26.

An Example of Fashion's Glamorization of Objectification and Violence (2009)31

5. Sexual Humor in Advertisements

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Fig. 27.

Although Not a Real Ad, This Parody Plays Off the Many Such Sexual Images that Real Ads Contain (circa 2007)32

Humor is a mainstay in the domain of sex and advertising. This humor is often adolescent and ribald and typically serves to bolster male bravado about penis size and power. Here are some examples: inline graphic inline graphic

The Double Entendre in this Commercial Helped It Go Viral (circa 2009)
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The Double Entendre in this Commercial Helped It Go Viral (circa 2009)33

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A Milkman Is Portrayed as a Busy Lover
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A Milkman Is Portrayed as a Busy Lover34

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This YouTube Advertising Parody Humorizes the Phallic Power (2006)
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This YouTube Advertising Parody Humorizes the Phallic Power (2006)35

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The Burger King ad below employs male adolescent humor: "super seven incher" and "it'll blow." The female model with a red, wide-open mouth suggests oral sex. It has been passed around on the Internet on various websites and elicited this response from Burger King:

Burger King Corporation (BKC) values and respects all of its guests. This advertisement is running to support a limited promotion in the Singapore market and is not running in the U.S. or any other markets. It was produced by a locally-based Singapore agency and not by BKC's U.S. advertising agency of record, Crispin Porter and Bogusky.36 inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 28.

This Burger King Ad Ran in Singapore in 200937

This idea of a sandwich that is so large it will stretch the limits of one's mouth seems to have been used Burger King advertising elsewhere. The one below was used in Germany in 2004. Note that again the model is female, although in reality men might be more likely to order enormous sandwiches than women. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 29.

This Burger King Ad Ran in Germany in 200438

When ads like this resonate with the public—or at least a certain segment of it—they often become the subject of parodies. An Internet site took the Burger King ad from Germany and substituted the name of a different advertiser—Durex condoms. In this case, it is clear that the woman's mouth was injured from sex rather than food. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 30.

This Parody Calls the Bluff of the Original Burger King Ad (circa 2010)39

Examples of phallus-shaped products abound in the world of marketing. One need only think of cylindrical bottles with caps, or foods like sausages and cucumbers, and so on. However, there are some instances where products are made to look distinctly like male or female genitals. inline graphic inline graphic

In a Bici ad from Italy, the choice of the particular pieces of bread and their placement specifically suggest an erect penis. Even the testicles are present in this image. Further, the connection between bread as life and the biology of reproduction is present. There are no subtleties here. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 31.

This Italian Ad Uses Sexual Humor to Attract Viewers' Attention (circa 2000)40

Read a newspaper story about the Nevada Gaming Commission's response to the Hard Rock Hotel ad.

The Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas used the play on words "buck all night" to appeal to the largely adult male audience of a rodeo event. The Nevada Gaming Commission objected to the billboard's overt sexual content and required it to be removed. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 32.

This Hard Rock Hotel Billboard Targets National Finals Rodeo Attendees with the Message "Get Ready to Buck All Night" (2004)41

Read about the male gaze and the male point of view as privileged, elsewhere in ADText.

Sexual humor is used to promote all manner of products—fast food, condoms, soap, and beer. Sometimes the images that appear to be ads are not even ads, but rather parodies or imagined ads where the same male bravado about penis size and power is highlighted. Both kinds illustrate an important point about how humor is typically used in advertising: It is the male point of view that is nearly always privileged. There is no parallel celebration of the power of the vagina—a power to please oneself and one's partner, a power to generate new life, a power to engulf as opposed to penetrate. inline graphic inline graphic

6. But Is It Pornographic?

This gallery is a good starting point on the Internet for more Tom Ford ads.

What does it mean to call an ad pornographic? It depends, of course, on how pornography is defined. Historically this has been the subject of debate, contention, and legal opinions. Critics have described fashion designer and film director Tom Ford's advertisements as "artistic." Others have seen them in a less favorable light. Certainly, from the point of view of composition, lighting, suggestiveness, beauty, allure, and a host of other attributes, they can be said to be deserving of attention and commentary. For the world of advertising, Ford's work parallels the work of other daring artists who have done such avant-garde things as placing a crucifix in a bottle of urine or wrapping large buildings in plastic.42 When a creative work involves sexual themes, but is treated by its audience as art, the term pornography for it gives way to erotica. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 33.

Is This Erotica or Pornography? (2007)43

Edmund Miller's encyclopedia entry on erotica as a literary genre describes its difference from pornography this way:

As a literary genre, pornography is writing that has sexual arousal as its primary objective. Erotica is such material with artistic pretensions. Thus, the descriptive term pornography implies a statement about intentionality and instrumentality without reference to merit, whereas the term erotica is evaluative and laudatory. In Flesh and the Word, John Preston more baldly says, "The only difference is that erotica is the stuff bought by rich people."

Since current literary theory makes writing of every sort available to analysis, it has in effect done away with the distinction. To discuss the aesthetic effect of pornographic material is to accord it the status of erotica.44 inline graphic inline graphic

This same distinction applies also to the world of visual art and thus to advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

Is the Tom Ford ad erotica or pornography? It might be called pornographic because the bottle of men's fragrance is placed between the woman's breasts, suggesting mammary intercourse. The woman's open mouth is prepared to receive the bottle and/or the fluid in it. Some would call this kind of imagery pornographic. Others, however, would see this as a sexually charged, artistic work that pushes the limits of the conventional and encourages the spectator to think in a specific way about the product and the brand. Thus, the same image—depending how the audience responds to it—can be either pornographic or erotic. inline graphic inline graphic

Thus, discussions about some of the most explicit advertising garner two kinds of responses. First, there are those who see it as pornographic and inappropriate for public cultural spaces. They would like to see it censored and banned. Often their arguments are couched in religious terms, or in terms of protecting the innocence of children. Some argue that such imagery encourages sexual predators and sexist attitudes and/or behaviors. Second, there are those who see it as erotica and thus indeed appropriate for public culture. They enjoy being challenged by the images and discussions that surround them. The marketers and advertisers who produce it belong, of course, to this latter world. They speak of it as "pushing the limits" and "breaking through the clutter." In the end, value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. inline graphic inline graphic

7. Selling Sex—Redux

The relationship between advertising and sex also includes those instances when sexually related products and services are being promoted. Such things include erectile dysfunction drugs, condoms, genital hygiene products, birth control, and so on. In many of these ads, sex itself is made a lot less explicit than we have seen in other instances. The topics discussed and the products themselves are handled more delicately and even indirectly. Imagine, for instance, a condom ad or an erectile dysfunction ad that actually showed the product at work. Here is an example of what we find instead: inline graphic inline graphic

This Cialis Ad Portrays a Long-Term Relationship between Sexual Partners (2004)
Video 5

This Cialis Ad Portrays a Long-Term Relationship between Sexual Partners (2004)45

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The ad makes it clear that these are heterosexual couples in committed relationships. It makes love and intimacy a large part of the imagery46 and asks, "when the moment is right, will you be ready?" The kind of sex sold here is conventional heteronormativity. Although these drugs are sometimes used recreationally, and by gay as well as straight men, such matters go unmentioned in the ads. inline graphic inline graphic

Nonetheless, there are many critics of this advertising. For example, US Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) recently proposed banning these commercials during early evening hours when children are likely to be a part of the audience. CNN's Bob Ruff quotes Congressman Moran:

A number of people have come up, including colleagues and said, "I'm fed up. I don't want my three- or four-year old grandkid asking me what erectile dysfunction is all about." And I don't blame them.47 inline graphic inline graphic

The drug companies claim that they make their best efforts to place the ads in appropriate media and settings, such as when the audience is at least 90% adults. Pfizer offers its Viagra advertising schedule each week for posting on the Parents Television Council's website so that people who may wish to avoid them may do so. inline graphic inline graphic

Condom ads, once banned on US television, are now accepted on many broadcast and cable channels as well as on the Internet. These ads in general depart from the indirectness of ED advertising and talk much more explicitly about sex. The following ad, which ran on MTV, shows a much bolder side of sex—a young, experienced woman about to have an interracial one-night stand. The only euphemism present is her rather sarcastic, "Gotta have the ticket if you want to ride the ride." inline graphic inline graphic

This PSA Promoting Safe Sex Ran on MTV (circa 2005)
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This PSA Promoting Safe Sex Ran on MTV (circa 2005)48

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The subject of female hygiene spray has been much discussed as an instance of the appropriateness of the product itself as well as the way it is discussed and talked about in ads. Less common, although present from time to time, is the recognition that men have distinctive male odors as well. The short-lived NodorO product threatened men with sexual rejection unless they used it to eliminate the possibility of odors. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 34.

NodorO Promises Men Sexual Success If They Eliminate MGOs (2008)49

8. Pushing the Limits—Or Stepping Over the Line?

Both members of the public and academic critics of advertising sometimes consider that advertising steps over the line of decency and appropriateness in its representations. As noted earlier, certain fundamentalist Christian groups have objected to depictions of gay relationships while others in the society consider them appropriate, refreshing, and even celebratory. Additionally, a US Congressman wants to restrict commercials for ED drugs to times when young children are not likely to be watching television. There is never likely to be any universal agreement as to what is decent and appropriate and what is not. Consider the following additional examples. inline graphic inline graphic

The following ad for the German men's magazine Deutsch certainly breaks through advertising clutter. Its unconventionality attracts attention. It is an explicit depiction of an alternative form of sex. Many people react with horror to human-animal sexual relationships, but here bestiality enters the world of advertising. This kind of behavior by household pets is a reality and occurs to the chagrin of many women, but here it is fetishized and eroticized.50 inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 35.

This Ad Eroticizes Bestiality (2008)51

What of nudity itself? There is a long tradition in Western art of depicting the human body as nude. We accept this as normative and seldom question it, although there are instances of Popes and other religiously motivated people insisting on covering the natural human body. Advertising has long ago established the right to display the female body as nude, but "full frontal" male nudity was a taboo until the early 2000s. inline graphic inline graphic

When the French edition of Vogue magazine published this Yves Saint Laurent men's fragrance ad in 2002, it was hailed as the first example of full frontal male nudity in advertising. The model is Samuel de Cubber, a French sports figure. Its appearance marked one of those moments in advertising history where the publicity generated by the ad greatly exceeded the reach of the ad itself. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 36.

This YSL Ad Is the First Instance of Full Frontal Male Nudity in Advertising (2002)52

But what about this ad that eroticizes a young girl? Is this art, erotica, or just pornography? Outspoken critic of advertising Jeanne Kilbourne, among others, has taken issue with it. She argues that sexualized children should definitely be off limits for advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

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Fig. 37.

This Young Girl Mimics A Sexy Adult Woman (1976)53

9. Conclusion

So what is the bottom line with regard to sex and advertising? Does it help to sell products? Does it promote alternative, non-normative ideas about sexuality? Does it offend? Does it challenge and celebrate alternatives? The answers to these questions are of course up to the audience. There are never going to be universal agreements about what is decent and proper, much less what is exciting and thrilling. inline graphic inline graphic

When we judge this, we must remember the reason that advertisements push the limits and break with propriety. Does it sell? Sometimes, of course, it helps. But what does it sell? Perhaps ideas about sexuality, at least as much as the products themselves. inline graphic inline graphic

10. Coda: Wrapping Up What Advertising Says about Sex

Although the choice of various images in this unit makes no claim about representativeness, they are in fact drawn from the many images that abound on the Internet, magazines, television, and other advertising venues. If a stranger to the culture viewed them, even the proverbial visitor from another planet, what conclusions might that stranger reach about the culture of American sexual behavior in ads? Here are some possibilities: inline graphic inline graphic

  1. 1. Sex is everywhere, not just in the intimacy of private lives. Even the most innocent of products—bread and fast food, for example—evoke sexual thoughts and images. inline graphic inline graphic

  2. 2. Sex is not just a part of committed relationships but often enters casual relationships as well. inline graphic inline graphic

  3. 3. Sexual relationships are not limited to heterosexual "vanilla" situations, but they occur among same-sex partners, in groups, and even with animals, and include a wide variety of "alternative" sexual practices and behaviors. inline graphic inline graphic

  4. 4. Homosocial, homoerotic, and lesbian chic relationships are very much a part of the contemporary sexual scene. inline graphic inline graphic

  5. 5. Sex is not just about heterosexual intercourse but includes masturbation, oral sex, voyeurism, and role-playing among its many variants. inline graphic inline graphic

  6. 6. Public nudity, including displays of breasts and genitals, is permitted. inline graphic inline graphic

  7. 7. Sexual fantasies are no longer relegated to the realm of private thoughts but are on display and lived out in public. inline graphic inline graphic

Do such generalizations merely reflect sex in contemporary American culture, or do they serve as models that generate aspirations and desires? The only possible answer is that they do both. However, in the process of reflecting cultural values and practices, advertising sometimes distorts, refracts, or selects what it represents. It reifies some practices. It normalizes others. It serves as a catalog of possibilities and aspirations. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O'Barr

William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of more than 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.


1. From the author's collection.

2. Mead noted cross-cultural differences in kinds of emotional responses considered appropriate for men and women, roles and behaviors assigned to them, etc., leading her to the conclusion that such things were shaped by culture rather than biology.

3. Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/pdf/dl1p.pdf

4. US Department of State Online Passport Application https://pptform.state.gov/FraudAbuseNotice.aspx

5. Ben Crane, "Bicycle and Trick Riders." The Trade Card Place. http://www.tradecards.com/articles/tr/index.html

8. "1946 Woodbury Facial Soap." From http://www.adclassix.com/ads/46woodbury2.htm

9. Reichert organizes his discussion of the history of sex in advertising in time-based blocks of 50 or 25 years, however there are no transformative events or campaigns to mark a distinct shift from one to another.

10. Cosmopolitan, September, 2007.

11. In the original, Reichert does not enumerate and list points of definition in the manner presented here. Rather his presentation is more discursive. This formulation largely quotes Reichert's own words and attempts to remain faithful to the points he makes there.

12. Elle, September, 2009.

14. "Pepsi Cindy Crawford," YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B02DGmkqDDU

15. Cosmopolitan, September, 2007.

16. Cosmopolitan, June, 2010.

17. Elle, September, 2009.

18. Elle, April, 2006.

19. From the author's collection.

20. It is important to remember that what is most on the minds of those who create ads is finding a powerful means of communicating a selling message. That, in the process, they also help shape our society's views and values of sex, perhaps seems incidental to it.

22. Charlene Makley, "Sexism and Racism in Advertising," Bad Boys Gallery. http://academic.reed.edu/anthro/faculty/mia/Images/Gallery/Pics/Candies.jpg

23. "New Sean John Unforgiveable Mini Perfume Set for Women & Men" September 2010. http://shoppingheavendotnet.blogspot.com/2010/09/new-sean-john-unforgivable-mini-perfume.html

24. Elle, 2009.

25. Elle, September, 2009.

26. "Karl Gets All Political On Your Ass Adventures in Gastronomy," July, 2005. http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/snarl/2005/07/20/karl-gets-all-political-on-your-ass/

27. "Abercrombie & Fitch- Cuddling." Courtesy GLAAD Advertising Media Program.

28. Lesbian chic in the context of advertising, as used by Reichert, Maly, and Zavoina, refers to what seem at first glance to be erotic relationships between lesbians, but in fact are merely poses that serve to tell heterosexual women how to market themselves in ways that entice and interest males. From Tom Reichert, Kevin R. Maly and Susan C. Zavoina, "Designed for (Male) Pleasure: The Myth of Lesbian Chic in Mainstream Advertising" in Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity. Edited by Meta G. Carstarphen and Susan C. Zavoina, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press: 1999), 124-5.

29. Elle, September, 2009.

30. "My Favorite Sexist Ads," November 2, 2010. http://myfavoritesexistads.tumblr.com/page/2

31. "Lara Stone x Louis Vuitton," December 8, 2010. http://sandiinthecity.onsugar.com/Lara-Stone-x-Louis-Vuitton-7259289

33. "Wash Your Balls!! Axe commercial," YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtZKL74LgMg

34. "Durex commercial – chocolate flavoured condoms," YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnJk_v2UPYQ

35. "Ultra Thin Condom Ad," YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHyVXJhCIvE

36. "Eating a Burger King 'Super Seven Incher' Is Just Like Giving a Blow Job" http://gawker.com/5301856

37. "Eating a Burger King 'Super Seven Incher' Is Just Like Giving a Blow Job" http://gawker.com/5301856

40. "'BREAD IS LIFE' Print Ad for Bread by Lorenzo Marini & Associates" Coloribus. http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/prints/bread-bread-is-life-959005/

41. Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

42. Andres Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix in a bottle of his own urine and entitled it Piss Christ. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/18/andres-serrano-piss-christ-destroyed-christian-protesters) Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works include wrapped buildings and other monumental projects. (http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/major_mca.shtml)

43. "What Do You Think of Tom Ford's New Campaign?" BellaSugar, August 20, 2007. http://www.bellasugar.com/What-Do-You-Think-Tom-Fords-New-Campaign-550199

44. Edmund Miller, "Erotica and Pornography," GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/erotica_pornography.html

45. From the author's collection.

46. In the early years after its introduction and before the current format for ED ads, Viagra ventured to suggest that the drug would "put the devil back in a man." Women's groups complained that this meant, of course, the possibility of greater sexual abuse of women if men were devils. Against this backlash, Viagra retreated. See the ad at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/asr/v007/images/7.2unit07_fig81.jpg

47. Bob Ruff, "Erectile dysfunction ads too hot for TV?" CNN, May 7, 2009. http://amfix.blogs.cnn.com/2009/05/07/erectile-dysfunction-ads-too-hot-for-tv/

48. "The greatest condom commercial ever," YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLdFreZRw0s

50. Advertising is not the first appearance of bestiality in public culture. European fairytales tell of such things as a princess who falls in love with a frog, a beast who loves a beautiful woman, and so on.

51. "'Crotch' Print Ad for Deutsch Magazine" Coloribus. http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/prints/deutsch-magazine-crotch-10633505/

52. Elisa Rolle, "Man Candy Day: Naked Beauty." http://elisa-rolle.livejournal.com/1038430.html

53. "Pieces of Wisdom Wednesday: What's that Smell?" Bye Bye, Pie! November 2010. http://byebyepie.typepad.com/bye_bye_pie/2010/11/pieces-of-wisdom-wednesday-whats-that-smell.html