Brittaney Kiefer
May 18, 2020

Sex sells... or does it? The changing rules of sex in advertising

As attitudes to sex and gender continue to evolve rapidly, driving the nature of the overarching narrative in very different directions, the old adage may not be as clear-cut as it once was.

Sex sells... or does it? The changing rules of sex in advertising

A classic ad for Woodbury’s Facial Soap, launched in the US in 1911, features an image of a dashing man in a dinner jacket embracing an elegant young woman in a gown, above a line that says: "A skin you love to touch."

At the time, the sensual nature of the campaign caused a stir. Today, it is regarded as one of the earliest examples of an ad that followed that old marketing adage: sex sells.

This was more than a cheap sales tactic, however. Beneath the surface, something more revolutionary was going on. Woodbury’s target audience was predominantly housewives. Written by J Walter Thompson’s Helen Lansdowne Resor, believed to be the first female copywriter in the US, the campaign was pioneering, because it shifted the lens from men’s sexual pleasure to women’s desire.

"JWT was speaking to readers as sexual subjects, not sex objects – and the pay-off was massive," according to a 2015 article in the Advertising & Society Review. Woodbury’s went on to become one of the country’s best-selling soap brands.

The use of sex in advertising has changed with the times, ranging from the base to the enlightened – it has served to titillate, reinforce stereotypes or challenge conventions. Sometimes, as in the case of Woodbury’s, it can reveal another side of humanity. 

Woodbury’s ad looks old-fashioned now, and even several years after its release, its shock factor began to fade as sexual attitudes were relaxed during the 1920s. The advertising of that era became more provocative, too, typified by racier images of women in silk stockings or low-cut dresses. Now, a century after the Roaring Twenties, we are in the middle of another sexual revolution, so the rules of sex in advertising must change too.

A few brands are starting to catch up to this. At the beginning of 2020, Durex launched a campaign challenging stigmas around porn, STIs and unsatisfying sex; Absolut used its ads to encourage consent; and Tena released a film featuring women over the age of 55 talking about desire, body image and incontinence. In this new landscape, all marketers must reappraise what they thought they knew about sex.

Let’s begin with a surprising statistic that emerged from Durex’s most recent global sex survey in 2017, which the brand conducts every few years to analyse sexual attitudes and behaviours across 40 countries and 30,000 respondents: two out of three people are dissatisfied with their sex lives. Durex’s Valentine’s Day ad summarised that massive sense of displeasure as: "We’re faking it."

That fakery stems from various causes, but advertising has certainly played a role in perpetuating unrealistic and unattainable images of sex. So does the conventional wisdom of "sex sells" still hold any weight?

"We associate ‘sex selling’ with that slightly old-fashioned, cheap tactic of just gaining attention by using sexually attractive people. It perpetuates all kinds of problems and objectifies people – mostly women but sometimes men as well. It teaches everyone that people are there to be desired rather than respected," Loz Horner, a strategist at Lucky Generals, says. "The world has moved on from that."

Advertising is not the only culprit that has sold false, and sometimes damaging, ideas about sex. The rise of digital media and platforms has simultaneously broadened and warped sexual attitudes. "A lot of people talk about the change that digital has brought to their category, but if you look at sex, it’s probably brought some of the biggest changes in the last 10 years," Ben Wilson, sexual wellbeing global category director at Durex owner Reckitt Benckiser, says.

In the digital era, "we’ve got all this openness in the world. We can talk to different groups about their likes and dislikes. We’ve got 24/7 free access to porn. We can be anything that we want to be," Chantelle Begley, head of strategy at Havas London, which works with Durex, says. "But with all this openness there are also repercussions."

This dichotomy is evident in the widespread availability of free porn online, through sites such as Pornhub. "Porn has seeped into everything, from [online retailer] to Love Island, and it’s silently crept into our bedrooms," Begley says. "Porn is the new sex education for a younger generation."

While Begley acknowledges that porn has its benefits, offering a place for exploration and fantasy, it can also spread misinformation and show unrealistic or extreme versions of sex.

Research shows children are being exposed to graphic images online that promote life-threatening sexual acts such as erotic asphyxiation, without much wider sex education elsewhere. Thirty-eight per cent of women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking and gagging or being spat on during consensual intercourse, a 2019 survey by research company Savanta ComRes found, citing violent scenes in porn as one cause. Begley recalls coming across a Spotify playlist called "A soundtrack to choke her out to".

"We found that people are having the sex they think they should have versus the sex they want to have," Begley says. "It’s the oversexualisation and this expectation to behave in a certain way that we’re trying to push against. "

Durex’s relaunch in February shared findings from its survey that broke down common misconceptions and myths about sex. "Sources of trust are lacking in sex. We feel that Durex could play a positive role," Wilson says. The brand issued an open letter with lines including: "Behind the messages of love and sex, sometimes it’s not as good as we expect. Told I need to moan like that. I should look like this… Porn’s not the norm."

Besides the ubiquity of porn, another force at play in the new sexual landscape is the rise of dating apps, which has transformed how a younger generation behaves in this respect by making it normal to meet others online. Dating apps, including Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, have also reported a rise in use during the coronavirus pandemic, when many people have self-isolated, leading those companies to implement more "virtual dating" features. Yet as much as dating apps promote their ability to introduce users to a wider circle of people, a common complaint is that they too often result in superficial connections. With the rise of the "swipe-right mentality", as Begley calls it, studies around the world have also shown a moderate decline in sexual activity among young people, dubbed the "sexual recession".

"We’re becoming more and more distant from the real thing itself. It’s all virtual," Begley says.

Durex positions itself as a counter to the falsities of the virtual world. It aims to "show the real side of sex", including "the fun and the fuck-ups", Begley says. That means discarding the glossy, romanticised images of sex that have long been the norm in media and advertising.

"The codes of the category were hotel rooms, silk sheets and perfect romance. We wanted to tell the untold story and make people feel empowered," she says. "Instead of painting this idolised world of how it should look and feel like, it was about democratising and normalising sex, and challenging those sexual conventions that are being exacerbated in the media, culture and society."

There is certainly a greater appetite to see the "real side" of sex, evident in forms of popular entertainment such as Netflix series Sex Education, which follows the awkward sexual encounters of teenagers in Britain. What is notable about that show, according to Horner, is that "none of the sex scenes of all types are there just for titillation or voyeurism". He adds: "They’re an important part of that character’s story. It feels like sex in all its forms is just part of life, which is what it is, of course. The best way to show that is to be honest about it."

Lucky Generals used those principles as inspiration when creating its first ad for Zoopla, which features a young couple celebrating their new flat by "christening" the bedroom. The idea for the spot came from the brand’s research, which found the first things that first-time buyers tend to do when they move into their new homes are "unpacking, cleaning, ordering a takeaway and having sex", Horner says. The Zoopla ad’s use of sex – which is never shown, but intimated through banging noises and a photo frame that falls off the wall – "was a powerful way to show empathy. It wasn’t just opportunistic or voyeuristic," he adds.

"Brands are embracing the awkwardness of sex a bit more," Horner says. Besides Zoopla, other examples include Maltesers, which in 2016 ran an ad featuring a woman with cerebral palsy joking about an awkward sexual encounter resulting from her spasm. Tango, meanwhile, ran a 2019 campaign that showed teens getting into embarrassing situations, including the moment that a dad discovers his daughter’s vibrator.

Along with the humorous and joyful sides of sex, some brands acknowledge they also have a responsibility to promote safety, a factor often missing when sexuality is used as a marketing tool. Durex’s campaign educates people about the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, with statistics, such as "1 in 2 of us have never been tested for STDs". 

"Why don’t we make protecting yourself an iconic thing for youth?" Begley asks. "We may care about the world and what we put in our body, but we don’t care as much about that moment of sex," she observes. "We wanted to be seen as an ally and not like a parent. Because [Durex] is synonymous with safe sex, we saw there’s a new role for us to play."

On Valentine’s Day, the date that Durex unveiled its new ads, Absolut also surprised some consumers when it launched a campaign tackling one of the murkier sides of sex: consent. The Pernod Ricard label partnered RAINN, a US anti-sexual violence organisation, for #SexResponsibly, which aims to spark a conversation about the role of consent in safe, healthy sex. "Buying someone a drink doesn’t buy you a yes," one ad reads. "Only a yes to sex is a yes."

"It’s a sad fact that alcohol plays a common role in sexual offences. Absolut has a responsibility to communicate its product truthfully and promote responsible consumption," Adam Arnold, global chief marketing officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who also leads the Absolut account, explains.

The vodka brand has a long history of championing social causes – most notably LGBT+ rights – but this mission around consent is also personal. Ann Mukherjee, chief executive of Pernod Ricard USA, was sexually assaulted at the age of four by an intoxicated individual. In about half of the sexual assaults that happen on US college campuses, either the perpetrator, the victim or both had been drinking before the assault, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing – we think companies need to create a conversation around responsible alcohol use and consensual healthy sex," Mukherjee told Glamour in February.

Arnold points out that this initiative is "the brand tackling an elephant in the room". Marketing alone may not have the power to correct big societal problems such as sexual assault, but brands can do their part by "not perpetuating the damage that’s been done by unrealism and the effects it’s having on people’s sex lives", he adds.

Before the #SexResponsibly campaign, Absolut was known for embracing inclusive forms of sexuality – its rainbow bottle celebrating the LGBT+ community is a prominent example. In 2017, its "Equal love" ad showed diverse people taking part in a choreographed kissathon, championing themes of acceptance and freedom.

Absolut: tackled the link between alcohol and sexual assault
More recently, a growing band of other brands is catching up to Absolut’s inclusive stance. Zoopla cast a mixed-race couple in its aforementioned spot about having sex in a new home. Elsewhere, Tena, in its #Ageless campaign, launched in March, explored the sexuality of women over the age of 55, a group that is vastly underrepresented in the media. "Because I’m comfortable in my body, I still feel sexy," one woman says in the ad.

The latter took a similar line to Woodbury’s, in that it put the spotlight on women’s sexuality, which "has been underestimated and underrepresented", Bridget Angear, joint chief strategy officer at Tena’s agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says. "You could call it a pleasure gap."

"This is compounded for women over the age of 55, who often say they feel invisible due to their lack of representation in culture. We found that older women often have a greater understanding and appreciation of the intimate pleasure they can get from their own bodies, but this aspect of them was almost never shown in culture or advertising," Angear continues. "We wanted to show older women in all their real, authentic glory, enjoying intimate relationships with their bodies. Unless women can talk more openly and freely about their sexuality, they will never be able to get maximum pleasure from it, and close the ‘pleasure gap’ on men."

In 2019, a year before its brand relaunch, Durex kicked off its "Ladies, let’s lube" campaign, which posed a provocative question to women: "Why do we still put up with uncomfortable sex?" It was noteworthy for lifting the lid on an area shrouded in stigma – female sexual discomfort – and promoting the idea that women should prioritise their pleasure.

Woodbury’s may have been ahead of its time, but the examples of Tena and Durex point to a growing movement in culture to give a voice to women’s sexuality, with nuance, humour and empathy. For example, a memorable scene in the first episode of hit TV series Fleabag shows the main character masturbating to a speech by former US president Barack Obama, while Cannes Film Festival darling Portrait of a Lady on Fire was praised for artfully depicting a relationship between two women through the female gaze.

But while many brands have woken up to the need for diverse portrayals of women, men have also been misrepresented in advertising, especially when it comes to their sexuality. Fernando Desouches, managing director of the New Macho unit at BBD Perfect Storm, realised this in his former job at Unilever, where he was the senior global brand development director for Lynx.

Lynx has a history of sexual advertising and was previously criticised for objectifying women, but the men in its ads were also oversexualised, Desouches says. "The way we were using sex was by men conquering women," he adds. "[Lynx] was part of the problem by generating an idea of a successful man who acts sexually in a way that is not through connection and more through performance. I realised at Lynx that men are raised to perform who they are, and sex is another way to perform. I advocate for brands to have an open definition of what is a successful guy."

Since 2016, Lynx has repositioned itself and tried to reflect a more modern form of masculinity with its "Find your magic" platform, which promotes self-confidence through other factors besides sexuality. While historically, sex in marketing has tended to sell "fake aspirations", Desouches has come to believe that brands must change those tactics to boost greater equality and acceptance. "Brands cannot show you how to live but they can show different aspirations," he says.

The new rules of sex in advertising must not only push against stereotypes of men and women, but also encompass the wider population of queer, gender-fluid and non-binary people. Gender fluidity is becoming more mainstream among Generation Z; a 2019 survey by Vice found that 41% of Gen Z respondents from Western countries identify as in the middle of the masculine to feminine scale, while half identify as something other than heterosexual. This trend is starting to be reflected in wider culture such as fashion, where there is a growing number of nonbinary labels and LGBT+ designers are becoming more visible. And in pop music, singer Billie Eilish (pictured, above) has risen to fame with her androgynous look and declaration that gender roles are "ancient". Yet advertising still lags behind.

"Historically, it was a very homogenous, narrow, white cis-male gaze which was our interpretation and experience of sex in advertising," Sara Beech, brand strategist at The Beyond Collective’s Frontier, says. "Now that young people are exploring and experimenting with different identities, we’ll see more openness to a multiplicity of viewpoints."

But to authentically reflect those viewpoints, the industry needs more diverse voices, Beech says. "Sex is becoming more of a democratic property."

Today, you have only to look as far as the success of Boohoo or the Kardashian empire to see that the tactic of "sex sells" can still work in its narrowest definition. Yet as attitudes towards sex, gender and love continue to change, the brands that wish to reflect humanity in its fullest sense must keep up – or risk becoming an anachronism.

Beech points out: "With any sort of new movement, there’s going to be that crossover period, with relics of the old and beginnings of the new. Younger audiences are coming up and starting to take more control over the conversation.

"There is a growing demand from consumers to see more honest and diverse protrayals of gender and sex in advertising. What’s sexy, from that traditional perspective, no longer passes muster."

Campaign UK

Related Articles

Just Published

5 hours ago

Coca-Cola Spiced: How Coke rolled out its first new ...

Aly Hite, director of brand, sports and strategic partnerships for Coca-Cola Company North America, shares the inside story.

5 hours ago

RGA launches brand design consulting practice in EMEA

The service is already available in the US and Australia.

5 hours ago

Media agencies having to become more strategic to ...

Research shows most (56%) global CMOs are midway through organisational transformation.

5 hours ago

WPP's internal whistleblower reports rose by 64% in ...

The agency holding group received reports from 612 whistleblowers last year, up from 372 in 2022.