In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Sex and Advertising
  • William M. O'Barr (bio)

[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.

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.

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.

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:

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Fig. 4.

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


Additional Information

Launched on MUSE
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