After decades of an increasing appetite for sex across TV, online and in advertising, it seems that what was once thought of as the world’s most reliable sales tool is at a crossroads. While dating apps, social media and other media platforms have allowed for the democratization of sex, at the same time, brands who were once synonymous with sex appeal and blatantly erotic branding have cleaned up their image. Abercrombie has laid off shirtless models, Playboy has downgraded to a PG-13 rating and even Axe has ditched blatant sexual overtures in favor of positive messages of male self-acceptance. It’s enough to make anyone wonder if sex still sells the way it once did.
Perhaps this is just a natural correction for a market that is all out of shocks to give, but the trends that led us to this place are more complex than general consumer desensitization to sexual imagery. As someone with decades of experience in fashion advertising, who has contributed to more than a few controversially sexy fashion ads, I know that the industry has always been cyclical, fluctuating between overt sexuality designed to provoke and softer, more chaste imagery. But this cycle feels different. The culture has shifted, with consumers on social media redefining the rules for what’s acceptable, what gets attention, and what it means to be sexy in the first place. Advertisers looking to bring sexy back should keep a few things in mind, or risk seeming out of touch.
First, brands should understand that today’s consumers value personal connection as much as they do sex appeal. The kinds of anonymous models with beautiful bodies that once sold beer to the masses aren’t going to grab the attention of a generation accustomed to knowing every detail of the lives of the celebrities they follow. Just look at the rise of models/personalities like the Hadid sisters, Kendall Jenner and Lucky Blue Smith, who command tens of millions of social followers—people that pay attention to their glamorous lifestyles as much as their above-average sex appeal. Brands looking to sell through provocative content would be well advised to cast their ads with people that can hold an audience’s attention in a way that transcends a single sexed-up image.
Secondly, brands must consider the social and sexual politics of the environment they are operating within, which have changed drastically over the past few years. A recent study by YouGov discovered that roughly a third of younger people identify as something other than "completely straight," a huge departure from older generations, where as many as 86% identify as totally heterosexual. This is something that should give pause to any marketer who thinks that connecting with young men begins and ends with images of half naked women. At the same time, changing views on gender identity are on the minds of many people, and feminism has become a mainstream cultural force. Instead of viewing these developments as a limitation on how we view and market sex, smart brands will see them as an opportunity to display their progressive values through inclusive work that empowers groups that have historically been ignored or objectified.
Thirdly, a rule that’s not new, but may be the most important of them all—make sure your sex is strategic. In the last decade, we’ve seen too many brands try, and usually fail, to inject sex into campaigns that have nothing to do with their product. It’s one thing to use sex to sell clothes or beauty products that make a person feel more attractive, but it’s quite another to try to sell web hosting, or cheeseburgers by hiring a gratuitously bikini-clad lady to appear in your ads. GoDaddy, once famous for bringing annual sleaze to the Super Bowl, has famously shifted away from a dated, hetero-normative sexual approach towards more inclusive campaigns that aim to connect with their core audience of small business owners, rather than aroused football fans.
On the other side, Calvin Klein’s spring 2016 #mycalvins campaign features highly provocative imagery but presents it in a way that makes a lot of sense for a brand that’s historically aligned itself with sex appeal. While the campaign did receive a slew of negative comments, there’s no doubt that the campaign did fit within the brand’s ethos while also launching it back into daily conversation.
Furthermore, the imagery of #mycalvins is far from the overt and overproduced sexuality of Carl’s Jr. and Go Daddy ads in years past—the models have a real and relatable kind of sex appeal, one that our culture is increasingly embracing. Tyrone Lebon, the photographer behind this campaign, as well as Frank Ocean’s wave-making "Nikes" video, brilliantly highlights men and women of all races and body types in his work, showcasing this next generation’s definition of sexuality—a shift brands aiming to sex up their own marketing efforts should certainly note.
So in 2016, does sex still have a place in marketing? In a word, yes, but it’s not a tool you can wield in the same way you did ten or twenty years ago. Brands who truly understand what their audience wants, how they identify within a changing culture, and how sex really relates to their brand can still turn heads, push the limits and have some fun with sex in advertising.