The number of sexy ads is decreasing as brands embrace social responsibility in advertisements.
Fashion brand Eckhaus Latta unveiled an X-rated campaign in March for their spring/summer 2017 collection. The campaign was shot by the Korean-German photographer Heji Shin and featured couples of different races and sexual orientations in the midst of erotic acts such as oral sex. The images are pixelated to hide the most intimate details, but there’s nothing left to the imagination. While the Eckhaus Latta campaign pushes the boundaries of acceptability, suggestive or sexual imagery in advertisements are not a brand-new concept. The level of eroticism in sexy ads has fluctuated over the years, coinciding with changes in the Western perception of gender, sex and pornography. But does sex still sell in 2017?
In 1911 the soap company Woodbury launched an outrageous ad for its time. It showed a tableau were a man lightly embraces a woman. The slogan, which reads, “A skin you love to touch,” was created by one of the first female copywriters in the business, Helen Lansdowne Resor.
The Woodbury ad was scandalous because it showed a man and a woman in an erotic setting, but this wasn’t the first time advertisers used sexy ads to sell goods. Images of sultry women were normalized within mid-19th-century advertising in America — eroticism was visible in ads for beauty products, fragrances and underwear. By 1936 Woodbury featured the first fully nude woman in its ads. Other brands followed suit and started to stretch the boundaries of acceptability regarding sex-driven ads.
In the 1960s a new era of sexy ads erupted when many brands embraced nudity. It was the start of the sexual revolution, which broke down the traditional notions of sex, gender and porn. See, for example, the Zest soap commercial where the woman covers her body in soap while whispering, “So I lather all over with Zest.” Or Noxzema’s suggestive “Take it all off” ad from 1967:
Two decades later fashion brands such as Calvin Klein used provocative imagery in order to sell jeans and perfume.
Tom Ford picked up the baton with his sexy ads in the early ’00s. His spring 2003 ad campaign for Gucci created a huge controversy. It showed a male model pulling down the underwear of the female model who had the iconic Gucci emblem waxed into her pubic hair. The ad was prohibited soon after.
However, Ford’s work seems almost tame when compared to the portfolio of problematic photographer Terry Richardson (who was recently dropped by Conde Nast International). Known for his sexually explicit aesthetic, Richardson was hired by the clothing brand Sisley to shoot their advertising campaigns from 1999 to 2008. The result of their collaboration was, unsurprisingly, intended to shock. See the 2002 Farming campaign, where a girl sticks out her tongue to receive cow milk in her mouth or is suggestively draped over a pig.
For some (fashion) brands, these sex-driven advertisements were successful and profitable. Calvin Klein’s iconic denim ads featured a 15-year old Brooke Shields, who quipped in a TV commercial, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The campaign contributed to two million dollars in monthly sales. Eroticism in lingerie ads worked wonders. Ads for Wonderbra contributed to first-year sales of more than $120 million.
Sexy ads are created under the assumption that they attract the public’s eye and, therefore, are an effective way to promote products and services. With their X-rated images this past spring, Eckhaus Latta wanted ads that were “sex-positive, body-positive, and sexuality-positive.” However, their campaign was launched in a time when overt sexual ads have seemingly lost their power. As Business Insider and many others have pointed out, the public is overwhelmed by the exploitive images seen in advertisements. The overt sexuality in advertisements can lead to negative publicity and decrease the long-term effectiveness of the ads themselves, as in Carl’s Jr.’s Super Bowl ads.
Recently more companies have shifted to social responsibility in their advertisements to attract more consumers to their brands. Young consumers have different values driving their spending habits compared to those of older generations. Young people want the companies they buy their products from to practice corporate social responsibility.
The change in society’s perception of sex-driven advertisements was underlined in a 2015 study published by the American Psychological Association. According to their research, “Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonviolent, nonsexual ads. There were no significant effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions.” Furthermore, “As the intensity of sexual ad content increased (from suggestive poses to full frontal nudity), memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased.”
Large corporations are aware of the shift and are changing their marketing to show consumers that they are socially conscious. One of the early adapters is Unilever’s Dove, as seen in their long-running campaign for Real Beauty.
Unilever doesn’t stand alone. Earlier this year, the hashtag #DeleteUber was created in response to accusations that Uber had undermined a taxi strike at New York’s JFK airport where a crowd was protesting against the U.S. administration’s so-called travel ban. Lyft’s CEO Logan Green quickly used the attention and announced that the company was donating one million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union. Starbucks couldn’t be left behind, and its CEO Brian Chesky announced that the company was providing free accommodation to anyone not allowed in the U.S.
Now it’s almost a competition between the brands in their display of generosity. However, it’s not merely altruism; it’s business. Brands are aware that in our current climate, social consciousness sells. And they’ll make sure their consumers are aware of their good deeds.
Brands can also cross the line when it comes to socially conscious marketing, however. In April Pepsi launched a global ad campaign showing reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner at a protest. The image that stood out was that of Jenner approaching a line of officers, which evoked the viral photograph of Iesha Evans, a Black woman who stood up to heavily armored riot police during a Black Lives Matter protest following the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016. After a social media storm and severe backlash, the company said in a statement, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.”
In September the French company L’Oréal launched a new diversity initiative. The Black model Munroe Bergdorf became the company’s first transgender representative. However, Bergdorf was sacked after one week because of her Facebook post where she commented on the neo-Nazi events in Charlottesville. According to L’Oréal Bergdorf’s comments were “at odds” with its values. The British beauty brand Illamasqua quickly offered Bergdorf a partnership where she now fronts their new campaign based around gender fluidity.
Brands cannot afford to ignore the existing and upcoming generation of consumers. Young consumers are likely to buy products when advertising aligns with their personal beliefs, whether it’s diversity, LGBTQ+ rights or other values. The new marketing strategy works. By using a Lyft ride or buying their morning coffee at Starbucks, consumers feel they’ve contributed to a good cause without any personal sacrifices. But whether it’s eroticism or social responsibility, it’s still business.