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  • Does Sex in Advertising Work?: A Review of Scholarly Research Informed by Professional Opinion
  • Tom Reichert (bio)

A recent campaign for design house Dolce & Gabbana drew attention for its images of attractive models in various states of undress, homoerotic themes, and a scene interpreted by many observers as a gang rape.1 Victoria’s Secret ads contain no violence or same-sex themes, but are readily recognizable for images of lingerie-clad supermodels rhetorically asking viewers, “What is sexy?” and “What is desire?”

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Figure 1.

Dolce & Gabbana print ad.

Figure 2.

Victoria’s Secret TV commercial.

The ads for Dolce & Gabbana and Victoria’s Secret are not anomalies. The pages of fashion magazines are filled with sexualized images for fragrances, accessories, cosmetics, and personal-care products, as well as ads for alcohol, video games, cell phones, and movies. The sexual tone of commercials aired on late-night cable programs and banner ads on websites are slightly less risqué, but still contain suggestive images and themes.

Persistent questions raised by observers in many quarters pertain to the efficacy of these ads: “Do they work? Does sex sell? Does sex in advertising achieve the outcomes its creators intend?” And while scholars have been asking these same questions since the 1960s, a recent interview [also published in this volume of A&SR] with Sam Shahid, a creative director whose reputation was built on sex in advertising, exposes a significant gap in the academic literature. While research provides part of the picture, Shahid’s insights divulge how sex in advertising really works, at least for advertisers like Dolce & Gabbana and Victoria’s Secret.

Meet Sam Shahid

Over the last 25 years one has hardly been able to discuss the topic of sex in advertising without referencing work touched by Sam Shahid. As a creative director for Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie & Fitch, among other brands, Shahid’s work has attracted attention, stimulated controversy, and sold products. As with most fashion advertising, Shahid’s work—much of which is photographed by Bruce Weber—is highly stylized with an artistic feel and an emphasis on the erotic. To paraphrase Shahid, his ads contain images of “gorgeous” young models who are, on occasion, clothed.2

Shahid’s provocative work has thrived in the marketplace. For example, Shahid directed Calvin Klein’s advertising during the 1980s—including several highly notable fragrance launches. His work for Obsession, described by Adweek’s Barbara Lippert as “a continuing series featuring group sex in darkened rooms or four male and female rumps under the Mexican sun,” resulted in record-breaking first year sales that topped $30 million.3 In 1991, following the launches of Eternity and Escape, international wholesale volume for Calvin Klein’s fragrances was in excess of $300 million.4

More recently, Shahid has directed much of Abercrombie & Fitch’s promotional look since its turnaround in the early 1990s. In 1993, prior to Shahid’s hiring, Abercrombie was losing $6 million on revenues of $85 million. By 2001, the company was making $168 million on sales of $1.35 billion. Shahid is not responsible for all of Abercrombie’s success, but his creative direction gives Abercrombie an identity that millions of young people pay money to be part of.

Given his track record, Shahid has credibility on the topic of if and how “sex sells” in advertising. As such, it is important to compare his responses published in a recent interview to what many consider a bedrock of knowledge: academic literature. This is particularly important in that much academic work in advertising fails to consider professional realities. As can be expected, the comparison reveals new insights and opportunities for researchers, professionals, and educators.

The studies examined are limited to social science reports; conclusions are therefore based on empirical observations rather than speculation or interpretation. Much of this work has been theoretically guided, and the studies constructed and carried out in adherence to the principles of...