Mike Fromowitz
Nov 5, 2011

Part 2: If we are getting sexier, what about the sex in Asian Advertising?

Part 2 of a 2 part seriesThe thought of a government body regulating advertising sounds scary. Would it not be better to ban companies making outrageously false claims about their products and ...

Part 2: If we are getting sexier, what about the sex in Asian Advertising?

Part 2 of a 2 part series

The thought of a government body regulating advertising sounds scary. Would it not be better to ban companies making outrageously false claims about their products and services than focus on the creative side of things. And what would the government body turn to next? The Internet? Editorial content? Journalism perhaps? What do think?

As promised in Part 1 of this 2 part series, here’s a synopsis of sex appeal in ads from several Asian countries.


In the supposedly ultra conservative nation of Singapore, the government has a relaxed censorship policy, balancing between providing greater space for free expression and the values upheld by its multi-racial society. Of course, “offensive or deviant sexual ads” are banned.

It would not be a surprise to find the following ad in some progressive European newspaper. But in Singapore? The Burger King ad was created by Singapore ad agency called Religion and written by a female copywriter. Who’d have thought?  Some bloggers labelled the ad “shameless”. The local ad industry thought “seven inches (was) too much” and ripped into the ad for being a “juvenile, cheap stunt”. It created a massive stir both in Singapore and abroad, attracting heavy criticism from the likes of FOXNews and the Times of India. Burger King in the US and its agency there, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, took the step of publicly denying any involvement in the ad.

The visual alludes to oral sex, or am I mistaken? The ad urges you to “fill your desire for something long, juicy and flame grilled with the new BK Super Seven-Incher”.  Wow! What a turn on.  But is this ad sexy?  Is it in good taste? (excuse the pun). Or is it sensationalist and offensive? You decide.

Singapore is also home of the condom ad. Condom ads reign in Singapore. They are probably the most prolific ads of all—often created to win at award shows. Many are scams but who are we to judge?  If you’re applying for a job—never put a condom ad in your book. Some creative directors hate them.  However, there are some truly creative moments, like these for Durex.

The 'Feathers' campaign has some thought provoking images and must have caused a stir. Nonetheless, the images encapsulate Durex main selling feature of their new condoms.

Once our eyes are set on it, the following ad campaign automatically creates an explicit image in your mind.  Some Durex ads are so cute they almost make you want to go out and buy condoms. This execution breaks through the clutter and brings the brand top of mind.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is known to regularly update its Code of Practices to keep up with changing values. Though the Broadcasting Authority can take legal action against advertisers who publicise content it considers as indecent or obscene, Hong Kong is a liberal society for the most part and creativity is not restricted.

Visitors to Hong Kong expect that sex would be somehow dampened via ultra-conservative China. But no. Everything from sodas to luxury handbags, cars to mobile services, all use beautiful and alluring women to advertise their products.  Main difference from the U.S. is that most are fully clothed (except for the bus girl shown in the transit ad below), but just as sexy. Even the men are sexy – and not so fully clothed.  Double standard?


Sex appeal is everywhere in Japanese advertising. While there are no public displays of affection, there seems to be no shame associated with sex. In fact, you can buy magazines in vending machines showing nude and semi-nude women whereas in the U.S. and other Asian countries trying to sell magazines through vending machines would be a quick trip to an arrest and trial.

Japanese society seems somehow freer, more open to the public display of intimacy, affection, and sexuality than most other Asian countries. One reason why sex appeal in advertising is so plentiful, most likely has to do with the world of economics. The reality is that Japan today is an extremely competitive marketplace. Its economy is way down, mired in long-term recession, there are increasingly fewer people to buy an ever-increasing number of goods. And this is the world's second largest advertising market.

Here’s a rather tame TV ad from Japan that dresses a hot looking lady in a bikini and films her doing strange things.  This is for WAM Hair Removal which promotes a ladies bowling competition. No, wait. Scratch that. It promotes a hair removal product.


South Korea

Sex is no longer taboo in South Korea but it remains a sensitive topic. As it is in China, Confucianism is still the underpinning of its social structure. Although there have been sweeping changes in attitudes towards sex appeal, some of the Confucian ideologies (such as the double standard towards sexual morality and chastity) are still prevalent. In a study of USA and South Korean cross-cultural differences, American respondents were found to be more liberal in their attitude regarding the use of sexuality. Paradoxically, they were found to be more restrictive than the Korean respondents regarding the use of nudity and sex appeal in advertisements. Still, Korean’s understand the power of sex appeal in advertising, and they use it to sell some of the most common products. Here’s a sample:



Thailand, a 95% Buddhist country, frowns upon women in tank tops, yet you can find considerable amounts of sexual appeal in their advertising. Thailand does have some strict censorship rules—kissing and romantic display of affection is not allowed. Thai TV and magazine ads have the highest degree of female nudity, challenging the assumption that Eastern values heavily influence advertising censorship. My theory is that sexuality in Thai ads isn’t used to sell products in the same way as other countries, perhaps because with sex selling almost everywhere in the country, sex doesn’t pack as big a punch in advertising.

The amount and treatment of sexuality in advertising needs to appeal to its local audience. An outsider would assume that Bangkok’s rather seedy reputation would pervade its advertising, but for the most part, Thai ads defy this misconception. The following TV spot for Low Fat Sealect Tuna is an example where it's all about a punch line instead of a selling point.


Here’s a print ad from Thailand for a knew cream product. Would a female have created this ad? Is it rude? Offensive? You decide.

What’s appropriate for Asia it seems, is largely determined by country and market-specific cultural and religious codes. While more Southeast Asians are flouting cultural prudishness by speaking openly about sex in the media, the topic is proving to be a challenge due to deeply engrained social and cultural views that associate sex with extramarital sex, prostitution and sin.


The Philippines is a Catholic country, yet sexual imagery is extensively used. The government believes in self regulation. Numerous and huge advertising billboards are everywhere in the Philippines, no place more so than on the 10 lane, 23-kilometer Edsa highway, a Grand Canyon of concrete, glass, and billboards with hunks and babes extolling underwear, fast food and face lifts. It is believed that some of the billboards, because of their sensual and sometimes overtly sexual content, can be distracting and dangerous to drivers—particularly the controversial underwear billboards.

Our friend, writer Roger Pe, tells us the Philippines is a rather “progressive thinking” society. He's right. However, what happened when BBH (London) produced and ran the commercial ‘Fallen Angels’ on Philippine TV? The Catholic church would have none of it.  In the spot, “seven pretty and sexily clad angels drop one after the other from heaven creating a raucous in the town plaza. They spot a gorgeous, innocent young man and the “seduction” unfolds.,The creative idea behind the ad was to show that Lynx Excite deodorant is so good that when you spray it on, women can’t control themselves. Personally, I find “Falling Angels” a great ad. The idea is universal, and far from being visually X-rated. You’ll find the spot here:


Taiwan - The Republic of China

The ROC's consumer-oriented society boasts one of the most active advertising markets in the world.  The use of sexually provocative images to promote products, has become as much a part of marketing products in Taiwan as it has in Japan or modern Western nations. Still, exploiting the power of sex in advertising is a relatively new strategy in Taiwan. There has been rapid social and cultural changes in the past 20 years, and changes in attitudes are especially visible among the young. They constitute almost half of the consumer market, and advertisers are doing their best to attract their attention by inundating the media with a deluge of sexy ads.

Even though Taiwanese ads are tame by European or American standards, they would have been unimaginable just four years ago. Bikini-clad Chinese models can be seen promoting every kind of merchandise, from satellite dishes to soft drinks. Mercedes Benz recently ran an ad in Taiwan titled “The 8th Day”.  It features an Asian woman who runs naked into the water. Sure, we see the car she drove to the beach, the Mercedes GLK,  but as expected, the ad doesn't show any obvious nudity, but more the suggestion of such. Yet, ROC viewers consider it “the most beautiful ad to have appeared on TV screens for a while”.



In India, recently,  TV channels have been ordered not to broadcast "overtly sexual" deodorant adverts that have become increasingly racy. With female models in sexy story lines, the ads are aimed at young men and pose a challenge to India's traditionally chaste culture. "The ads brim with messages aimed at tickling libidinous male instincts," India's information ministry said in a statement. “They offend good taste and decency and appear indecent, vulgar and suggestive by subtly sending a message that the products arouse women's sexuality".

Today, it’s no great exaggeration to say that the trend in India to show more sex in their ads continues. Sex appeal serves a number of crucial roles in advertising including grabbing attention, augment recognition, enhancing recall, evoking emotional responses, enhancing persuasion to buy and boost brand recognition.

One ad in particular, for Wild Stone deodorant, has pushed Indian sensibilities to their limits. It shows a young, pretty woman in a sari, carrying food at a family gathering, who bumps into a young man after being distracted by his body spray. In the next shot they are seen naked in bed, where they appear to have sex before the women leaves with her sari disheveled and hair tousled.


Some Asian countries are notoriously shy when it comes to sex, but that’s changing.

A regional-wide ad campaign using sex appeal as a platform, can cause difficulties for marketers in a region as vast as Asia, from liberal Japan, where almost anything goes on TV, including nudity, to Malaysia where ads can't show a woman's bare back. Images that would be innocuous in some countries are deemed too provocative due to deeply engrained social and cultural views. One European shampoo-maker had to pull from the Malaysia market a commercial showing a hairdresser washing a woman's hair. The problem: the hairdresser was male.

Malaysia and Indonesia

In Asia’s more conservative markets of Malaysia and Indonesia, ads appear less provocative—the women bare less skin, and lovers don't touch each other.  The authorities make clear what is not permitted, and just what comprises Asian values. But how these values should be expressed is more difficult to define. Malaysia for example, has three racial groups: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. Religion also makes things more complex with the country being multicultural—60% Muslims, 19% Buddhists, 9% Christians, 6.5% Hindu. Islam is the state religion.

Indonesia, although not an Islamic state, is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation (86% of the population). Its advertising codes prohibit the use of “obscenity”, including kissing scenes in locally produced ads. They can be sexual as long as they do not show sexual scenes. So it’s up to the writers to create scripts that allow the imagination to do some of the work, much like a good radio ad.

Todd Callahan, country manager for DKT, Indonesia’s largest condom distributor, says “so far the law has not prevented our company from advertising”.  A DKT  television commercial  has sexy songstress Julia Perez suggesting to a male footballer trying to shoot his ball between her legs: “Mau masukin? Pake Sutra dulu dong!” (Want to enter? Wrap it up with a Sutra first!) “Some ads are even more direct than they would be in the United States,” he says.


Sex appeal advertising has been extensively studied in the west, but little research has been conducted in Asian countries like China, in which the usage of sex appeal in advertising has been increasing in recent years. In a bid to protect its cultural identity and its citizens from getting lured into the western culture and influences, the Chinese government has banned many ads they believe to be “overtly seductive and tantalizing in nature”.

Chinese regulations against “unwholesome” content and sexual themes is just one part of a larger attitude of paranoia that surrounds advertising in China. This is especially true when it comes to advertising for highly-sexual video games as seen in the M2K ad shown below.

China doesn’t want their people spending their time playing games and views these ads as having negative, long-term effects on the productivity and intelligence of the nation’s men.

Advertising that uses explicit sexual messages do not go far on Chinese TV.  Government organs, (no pun intended), continuously release statements banning TV spots with obvious sexual imagery. Print ads are less tightly monitored. So, it is our guess that Victoria’s Secret style catalogues may be the way to go.

When sexy singer Beyoncé appeared on the first Chinese edition cover of Sports Illustrated, it ramped up the competition in magazine sales. An earlier edition of For Him Magazine featured Chinese singer A Duo on its cover. She was wearing a white V-neck leotard that reveals every sexy inch of her substantial figure. Inside the magazine, she poses like a dominatrix, clutching her breasts, and bending, sweat-drenched, over a submissive man. The images would hardly be shocking in America or Europe. And they are tame when compared with what appears in many magazines in Japan or Thailand.

Though sex in China is still considered a taboo subject, the photos are not only highly provocative but appear to be a sign of change—sex and sexuality are infiltrating the country’s mainstream media. It’s a sign that China is rapidly changing, and will inevitably struggle to absorb its newfound freedoms. Today, with its economy racing ahead, the government seems to be loosening its hold on the personal lives of its citizens. Many say the trend is being driven by the booming market and by entrepreneurs eager to cash in on the country’s freer lifestyles.

Being naughty in advertising is possible in China, as long as the ads remain “appropriate” say the authorities. Recently a man in Shanghai was selling condoms in packages bearing the likeness of Chairman Mao. His shop was closed, of course, for selling condoms in “inappropriate packages”.

Chinese advertisers, on the other hand,  do have their humorous side, as in this condom package design featuring George W. Bush.

It doesn’t get much hotter than this.

In 2008, American Apparel joined a growing list of foreign companies opening retail shops in China. They already had shops in South Korea and in Japan.  With its focus on affordable fashion basics, the company was an anomaly—a marked contrast to many high-end European designer labels like Gucci, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Armani,  all popular with Chinese consumers.

When American Apparel entered the market, their CEO Dov Charney said: "It's obvious that young metropolitan adults are more sexualized than their parents, and they appreciate ads that are sexy and artistically provocative. I believe Chinese young people will understand the message of the advertising and will connect with it."

For nearly a decade, American Apparel's provocative ads have been at the forefront of their worldwide success, always standing out from their peers. When you look at their ads, they aren’t selling clothes. They’re selling the notion that scantily clad girls in compromising

positions are hip.  Here’s one of their less revealing ads.

American Apparel caters to a hipster clientele, and the company is equating coolness with sexualized positions, and the idea that it’s “okay to treat women as things that should be stared at”.  The women have become the products, not the clothing. People like them. People hate them. Some women find them degrading, sexist, offensive, and provocative. But that’s for you to decide. Want to see more American Apparel ads, ( you must be over 18 years) look here:


No doubt, much of the work produced with sex appeal themes is intentionally provocative—some say irredeemably sexist, and anti-women.  In many cases, I have to agree. As advertising “looks” to be less blatantly sexist, more ads than ever are being called sexist.

So, where do you draw the line? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Mike Fromowitz



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