Sex Sells, but at What Cost?

In a society where women are fighting for equal rights and representation, one of the biggest anti-supporters of these trends is the advertising industry. We see advertisements and commercials every day whether on TV or simply walking down the street. Unfortunately, they’re unavoidable. And what’s equally unavoidable is the over-sexualization of women in these prints and videos.

Whether they’re selling a car, a watch, or a magazine subscription, women are represented as being something which comes with whatever item is being offered, like a free gift. Often times these women don’t correspond at all with the product and have no real place in its function. However, ad companies are still finding a way to insert nudity and sexuality into the most unsexual items in order to draw attention to their products and raise sales.

For years companies and ad agencies have been taking advantage of society’s obsession with sexuality and have pushed the boundaries of national T.V. with raunchy or suggestive commercials and advertisements. “Sex Sells” is a phrase which is as disputed as it is thrown around. Some analysts believe that by stimulating the more primal, mating parts of human anatomy, the observer is more likely to pay attention to the ad. When you notice the ad, you’re more likely to remember it, and then ultimately purchase the product. However, there are many studies which claim that this attention to sexual stimuli can actually distract the observer so much that the product is ignored (further reading).

Whether this tactic actually works is still debatable, but what isn’t is the type of sexuality which is used when making these commercials. Growing up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I’ve spent my entire life looking at magazines and photos of half-naked or completely naked women advertising a product.

One of the first print ads I remember seeing and thinking “oh my God, this girl is naked!?” was for Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb perfume. In the photo, the model is seen holding the perfume bottle while half naked, with only a twirling ribbon to cover her chest. Seeing this at nine years old was shocking but, if I was to see it now, I probably wouldn’t give the image a second thought.

Images have only gotten worse since the early 2000s, but my tolerance has been raised. Obviously, I’m older now and I’m not ignorant to the sexuality of the world, but is that because we become immune to these graphic images? Has growing up seeing these photos caused us to no longer find nudity shocking? I think this is hard to believe especially because the movie industry seems to warn against these images more than the publishing companies do. A movie that shows the same amount of cleavage as the perfume ad would most likely be rated PG-13 or at least have warnings of Parental Guidance Suggested before the opening screen. But these images are available for people of any age to look at, just by purchasing a magazine or watching T.V.

Sports Illustrated Swim is one of the most anticipated magazine issues ever, raking in more than $1 Billion every year. It’s Time Inc.’s most popular issue with compilation videos, TV specials, and phone wallpapers all contributing another $10 million in revenue. The magazine itself is a prime example of selling women and objectifying them. Even though the women aren’t selling any particular product, they are selling this magazine. Here, the objectification of women IS the product and IS what people are willing to pay $6.99 to get. The magazine is using sex to sell itself.

Super Bowl ads are the most anticipated of the year and also some of the most sexual. It often seems that the beer companies, food chains, and other big market agencies are competing for raunchiest commercial. There are a ridiculous amount of sexual innuendos and suggestions throughout these ads ranging from more tasteful comments to almost complete nudity.

This ad’s first line is “I love going au naturel”, while the actress/model Charlotte Mckinney strolls across the screen; suggestively wearing nothing at all. I don’t even think this needs to be explained. Their advertising for a hamburger and there’s a naked woman. How does that connect?

While so many ads are portraying women as being nothing more than objects, there are movements by companies such as Sally Hansen, Procter & Gamble, and Nike all proving that women don’t need to be made into sexual objects in order to sell products.

In a campaign for Nike athletic wear, the “best American distance runner ever" Lauren Fleshman stands to exemplify what a strong and athletic woman actually looks like. Noticing how men athletic wear was being modeled by actual professional athletes, Fleshman was irritated that the women’s garments were being worn by professional models instead. This realization drew Fleshman to reach out to her sponsor, Nike an inquire why women athletes weren’t receiving the same amount of representation as the men. Nike responded by introducing Fleshman in her own Nike campaign, paving the way for other female athletes to be represented going further.

Fleshman was praised for her placement in these ads, which received a ridiculous amount of positive feedback for depicting women as strong, independent, and driven, as well as exemplifying the idea that women are more than just sexual objects. 

While advertising companies may never stop using the sexuality of women to sell products, it’s important that we notice that what they are doing is detrimental to women’s independence and image. So many commercials and prints suggest women as being nothing more than objects for men’s sexual desires. However, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see companies using women for more than just their bodies. Hopefully, as time goes on, strong and inspiring women will continue to be the face of major ad campaigns and companies, while those objectifying women become less and less common in mainstream media.