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The Sex In Advertising Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4560 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Today we live in a world that sex sells mostly everything. People from all over the world are constantly bombarded with an increasing amount of sexual advertising messages whether it is seen on television, magazines, billboards, or even heard on the radio. Advertisers use sexual clips and photos in their ads or commercials to make a long lasting impression on the consumers.

Sex in advertising

The amount of partially and fully nude models has severely increased over the years and is more popular now than ever. Advertisers use sex as a tool to draw additional attention to a specific product and are known to be one of the most persuasive tools used by both marketers and advertisers.

Advertisements often touch the borderline of the forbidden, with the emphasis of attracting attention (Heckler et. al, 2001). The limits are consistently being pushed to see how far advertisers can go. From the beginning of the 20th century focusing on a women’s calf below her skirt would be enough to pass the limit for what was tolerated, and now the advertisements being used today would easily be considered as pornography.

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Pictures, sounds, and stories, are a form of sexual information that has proven to have stirred up a variety of emotional reactions within viewers (Heckler et. al, 2001). Sexual appeals can generally be defined as messages; it can be shown through brand information in advertising contexts or as persuasive appeals in social marketing contexts, which has a connection with sexual information. In advertising, there are different types of sexual information (Lambiase & Reichert, 2003). Lambiase and Reichert identified five different types of sexual content in advertising, which are nudity, sexual behavior, physical attractiveness, and sexual referents.

The usage of sex appeal in advertisement

Throughout the past twenty years, the exposure of sex appeal in advertising has become more or less common (Henthorne & LaTour, 1994). The reality of sexual appeals in advertising is widespread in throughout many parts of the world and it is often thought of as fulfilling stimulating and arousing fantasies (Gould, 1994). Stephen J. Gould, further states that the ethics and morality of sex appeals continues to be contested, much as sexual norms and traditions in general have been challenged throughout history. A review of remaining research indicates complex connections between the usage of nudity in an advertisement and numerous lengths of advertising efficiency (ibid). The research on the use of nudity in an advertisement has found that although nudity may increase and bring forth attention it may also decrease the attention toward the brand name (Belch, Severn, 1990).

Refering to a study by Richins (1991) it was stated that about half the time or even more frequently, more than 50 per cent of respondents said that when they see clothing advertisements and cosmetic advertisements, they compare themselves to the models in the advertisements. After viewing beautiful models or highly attractive individuals, for example in television advertisements or even on the cover of a Victoria Secret catalog, viewers tend to rate the attractiveness of more ordinary looking people lower than they would otherwise (ibid).

Sexual appeal directed to youth

Sex and sexism in advertising justify further discussion, as marketers target young audiences with sexual appeals and marketers use sexual imagery to sell products to teenagers and young adults (Reichert, 2003). The effect of sexual content in advertising may be heightened for young adults, for whom sexual expression and experiences are still relatively new and therefore sexual content is often targeted to young adults (ibid). The author states that advertising creators are producing sexual appeals for products targeted to young adults, and media planners are placing these advertisements in media consumed by younger audiences. Much of today’s sexual advertising targets youth, yet there is little data in existing research to show how the youth react to such advertisement.

Literary Review

Arousal and response in the context of sexual advertisement stimuli

Lambiase and Reichert (2003) claim that men and women perceive sexual appeals in advertisement differently. When showing the men and women a print advertisement of explicit female nudity women reacted tenser then men did. When men viewed the print advertisement, they reacted with energy arousal instead of tension arousal (ibid).

In a study that was conducted, one group of participants was exposed to an advertisement with nude erotic appeal while a second group was shown an advertisement with semi erotic appeal (Lambiase & Reichert, 2003). The participants in the two groups were shown an advertisement similar to each other, showing a women modeling on a beach, but the advertisement with the seminude model was masked by a perfume bottle. Both of the groups’ attitudes towards the brand were then evaluated. The outcome of the experiment showed that the advertisements with nude erotic appeal were negatively influencing consumer’s attitudes to the brand. The group that was shown the semi-nude advertisement displayed a positive association toward the brand (ibid). The author also concludes that these results indeed undermine the idea that sex sells; this is especially true when it comes to female respondents.

Sexual appeals perceived by men and women in advertising

Treise and Weigold (1994) argue that although it is often believed that sex sells, it sells at the consequence of controversy. This statement was supported by the author, who conducted this study. The sample responses showed that a large amount of consumers’ are bothered by the use of sex in advertisements. About half of the participants in the study felt that there is nothing wrong with using sexual advertisements to sell products if it is perceived as “tasteful”. Although participants believed that there was too much sex in advertising. More than half of the respondents in Treise and Weigold’s (1994) study felt that nudity in advertising is not appropriate for general interest in magazines; almost as high figure of the respondents thought that sexual advertisements play a role in a teenager’s decision to become sexually active.

Men and women’s response to nudity in advertising

Smith et. al, (1995) have studied how partially nude models in advertising influence consumers. Authors refer back to prior studies, where they found a common finding that sexual stimulus in advertising draw attention away from brand information. Also people who viewed the advertisement will notice the difficulty in remembering the brand due to the advertisement’s sexual content. However, the authors repeatedly state that nudity or sexual content in an advertisement increases the consumer’s arousal. Increased arousal takes some responsibility for consumers increased recognition of sexual content in advertisements. As stated by Smith et. al, (1995) Advertisements with sexual content or nudity increases recognition; meanwhile, it decreases the brand recognition. The authors also states that men were more receptive to advertisements containing female nudity, but women were more favorable to advertisements with a nude male.

Smith et. al, (1995) state that previous research has identified important variables that support whether nudity is considered to be effective and or ineffective in advertisements. The research showed that nudity should be avoided in situations where it can give off a negative thought our feeling, like an inappropriate product; however, the author’s claim that nudity works better for products such as, alcohol and fragrances, the main reason for this is that sex appeal promote products better than others. Although majority of consumers will be aroused by advertisements containing sexual stimuli, it is important to remember that not all arousal is beneficial to the advertiser (ibid).

Data Collection

When collecting data for the research it can be either collected for the first time which is called primary and/or information that already exists which is secondary data. According to Yin (2003) it is more convenient to use secondary data. Yin (2003) says there are six different ways evidence can be collected. These are through documents, records, interviews, direct observation, participant-observation, and physical artifacts. Each of these do not have an advantage over the other (ibid).

The method I used to collect data for this study is interviews, documentation, and observations. My secondary data will be the documentation and observations will be my primary data. Interviews will be the major source for my primary data collection. my reason for choosing interviews as my major source is because of its strength. It allows me to directly focus on the topic of my thesis. Yin (2003) believes that an interview can have potential disadvantages and can be biased because of the poor constructed questionnaires. There is also a risk for reflexivity. This is where the interviewed person will tell the interviewer what he or she wants to hear.

A focus interview was used to conduct my thesis. The interview will be used to prove or disprove the theories of this study. This type of interview can be done in different ways. Interviews through the telephone are less expensive and also are time efficient; therefore telephone interviews are extremely useful when dealing with an interview that is far away; yet, face to face personal interviews can be time consuming and involve more complex questions. The personal contact during an interview also allows the interviewer to obtain more feedback from the respondent. The type of focused interview I used for this thesis is a focus group; my research was done through two focus group interview sessions.

For my sample selection I chose students from Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, California. The choice of respondents was based on my own personal preference. I thought that targeting this specific group was interesting because I would get to research what the students of Arroyo High thought about sex in advertising. Because this group of people is in high school they are considered to be under developed and immature when it comes to sex. Also they are still at an age where advertising can easily influence them.


Young men

The case study was conducted through two focus group interviews, one group including women and one group including men. In the first interview several students from Arroyo High School were selected. The male students participating in the focus group interview were born in 1995- 1996. The individuals participating were told that the aim of this session was not to make them agree upon one solution, but to bring forth their individual perceptions and attitudes. The focus group interview started with me showing them five magazine advertisements (appendix 2 – 6). The reason for doing this was to stimulate their minds in order to improve the upcoming questions.

At first, the males articulated that “sex sells.” The group agreed that a sexual advertisement had to contain a women that was “really good looking” in order to be considered an erotic advertisement. The physical appearance being above the average looking individual was very important to the group when deciding if the advertisement was sexual or not. One respondent said: “Sex is common nowadays, companies should think of parodying sex in advertisements.”

Is there too much sex in advertising and is there a limit where it becomes offensive?

This question caused a lot of debate. Overall the group stated that there was too much sex in advertising. Here are some remarks from the discussion: “Young children 10-14 years old as well as many of us high school students get the wrong idea.”

“It is okay if the people are semi-nude, but not completely naked.”

“If the sexual advertisement doesn’t have much to do with the product, then there is probably too much sex involved.”

Is okay to use sex in advertisements?

The students all agreed as long as it is used properly; otherwise, it is not okay.. One student claimed: “Sexual appeal in advertisements if it promoting fragrances or lotion, but not okay when it is used for yogurt.”

Another respondent stated, and got support for the statement from the group: “Sometimes the advertisers go too far.”

Do advertisements with erotic appeal change your attitude toward a brand?

This question had a split answer. Some pointed out that they do not change their attitude towards the brand because the advertisement is sexual; however, two boys stated that sometimes they do. One respondent commented: “If the advertisement is too sexual, I most likely will not purchase that product.”

The other respondents answered: “if the advertisement is sexual and not relevant to the product, then my attitude usually changes towards that brand or product.”

“You do not have the energy to care if the advertisement is sexual, you might change attitude but you do not have the energy to change buying behavior.”

“Personally, sex in advertising is not enjoyable anymore.”

Do advertisements with attractive models change your comparison standards for physical attractiveness?

All but one guy claimed that their standards changed after looking at attractive models in an advertisement. Also after viewing advertisements the respondents admitted they had higher standards for how the girls should look.

Young women

The second interview at Arroyo High included several female students born between the years 1995-1996. The focus group session was conducted in the same manner as the first one.

Initially, the respondents discussed in general how they define sexual appeal in advertising. Some of the female respondents defined sexual appeal in the following way: “It has a sexual appeal if they move slowly in combination with soft lightning.”

“It does not have to include nudity to have sexual appeal.”

“Strong attraction in their eyes can tell you that it really looks like he or she wants sex.”
Majority of the female students did not mention physical attractiveness, but instead talked about the importance of the actor/ actresses’ movement.

Is there too much sex in advertising and is there a limit where it becomes offensive?

The female students all seemed to agree on the following: “The companies do not gain anything with sexual appeal in advertising since everybody has it.”

“To me, advertisements based on sexual appeal do not stand out.”
The female students believed that an advertisement becomes offensive when the nudity has no connection to the product.

Is okay to use sex in advertisements?

The female students did not agree, they believed that sexual appeal could be used if it had a relevant purpose in the advertisement. One of the respondents mentioned, “For example, a sexual advertisement is okay when it is promoting condoms.”

Do advertisements with erotic appeal change your attitude toward a brand?

The opinions amongst the respondents were split. Some claimed that they did not think of the advertisement when buying a product. Other said that it changed their opinion about the product and instead chose a similar product. One student stated:

“You do not think about the advertisement when you buy a product.” Another girl claimed:

“It might change attitude towards the brand and you might choose another brand if the advertisement you saw is bad and corny. This has happened to me before.”

“You get a negative attitude if the advertisement is too sexual.”

Do advertisements with attractive models change your comparison standards for physical attractiveness?

The female students all agreed that it does not change their perception of how your friends look, because of their personality. Although, they did agreed that it changed their outlook of people they do not know. One of the girls explained it like this:

“If you meet a guy on the street it can happen that you compare him with good looking models in advertisements.”

One of the girls also claimed
”I often find myself comparing the men in advertisements with my boyfriend”.

Data Analysis

The survey participants believed that being nude is very different than sex appeal. The students in both the girls and boys group agreed that all the models in the advertisements I showed them were “very good looking” and not the average “girl next door,” which played a great role in how the advertisements were perceived. According to Lambiase and Reichert (2003) there are different types of sexual information in advertising; nudity, sexual behavior, psychical attractiveness and sexual referents. As previously stated, the respondents agreed that the different types of advertisement are considered to be sexual. From my research I found that men believe physical attractiveness is a more important factor than women think. Men claimed that in order for an advertisement to be of sexual content the women in the ad had to be extremely good looking. This backs up Ramirez and Reichert theory; that physical attractiveness was twice as important to men than it is to women.

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The male respondents did not feel bitterness towards attractive models in advertisements like women did. They explained that they realize people in advertising are perfect because they are retouched. Richins (1991) states that young adult females compare their level of attractiveness with models in advertisements, and women also tend to envy their beauty. This shows that Richins theories concerning young women feeling envy towards attractive models are not applicable to young men. Furthermore, beautiful models in advertisements are supposed to change the comparison standards for physical attractiveness (ibid). The majority of the respondents agreed to this and stated that they have higher demands on how a girl is supposed to look like due to the models in advertisements.

Some of the respondents thought that the reason why many young females have bad self- self-assurance is because they are constantly fed with advertisements showing how they are supposed to look. However, some of the respondents claimed that advertisement had nothing to do with how they want to look. According to Richins (1991) young adult females feel envy and compare their beauty with models in advertisements targeted toward them. The respondents supported this theory.

The respondents claimed, except for one who stated that she was not affected by models in advertisements, that the self-perception of physical attractiveness was lowered by advertisements including physical attractive models. Some of the respondents pointed out the fact that they subconsciously changed their perception after they have been exposed to eye-catching models. Richins (1991) states that exposure to advertising with idealized images of physical attractiveness lowers, at least temporarily young adult female’s satisfaction and self-perception of their own physical attractiveness. The discussion between the focus group confirmed this.

The respondents mentioned if they were walking down the street it is extremely likely that they will have a higher comparison standard for physical attractiveness after looking at attractive models in advertisements. However, they quickly point out that it did not change their view of their friends since personality is important to them. According to Richins (1991) exposure to advertising with idealized images of physical attractiveness will raise young females’ comparison standards for physical attractiveness.


The findings of my thesis imply that there are some similarities between the data gathered and the research stated of how young men react to sexual appeal in advertising. However, there are also some differences.

My findings suggest that young men believe there is too much sex in advertising, especially in cases where the product has no connection with sexual appeal whatsoever. Additionally, young men believe that advertisements can be discriminating both to men and women, since the models that are appearing in these advertisements are based on sexual appeal and are often well trained and good-looking.

My research also suggest that nudity in advertisement is so common today that even though advertisements include unnecessary nudity young men do not change their purchasing behavior, even if the attitude towards the brand may change. Previous research confirms the change in attitude, but the fact that buying behavior does not change has not been brought up in earlier research. The focus groups suggested different products where they believed it is okay to use sexual appeal in advertising. One example is in advertisements for fragrances. The focus group also mentioned a non-suitable sexual advertisement was ice cream.

Additionally my findings suggest that young men do not feel any bitterness or jealously towards models in advertisements because they are aware that the models in advertisements are retouched to for a more tasteful appearance. However, the respondents in my focus group brought up the fact that they believe people in general change their self-perception of physical attractiveness due to attractive models in advertisements. They also claimed that the comparison standard for physical attractiveness increased after viewing an advertisement, with a stunning woman, that is based on sexual appeal.

My research also suggests that female respondents believe there is too much sex in advertising. This is especially true when it comes to products that have no association with sexual appeal. Also, young women believe an advertisement can be discriminating. Results show that young women believe that women are often portrayed as sexual objects in advertisements.

In addition, the research also suggests that some young women change their attitude towards a brand and in some cases buying behavior if the advertisement is bad and too sexual. According to my findings young women are affected by sexual appeal in advertisement. This is due to the fact that the models in the advertisement are extremely attractive. This affects the self-confidence of young women according to the participants of the focus group. According my research, the reason for this is because young women are constantly targeted with advertisements based on sexual appeal which includes attractive models.

Other findings suggest that young women’s comparison standard for physical attractiveness increased concerning casual meetings. However respondents from the focus group claimed that comparison standards for friends were not increased since they had a personality which according to the focus group member is much more important.

Today’s adolescences are used to the sexual content showed in advertisement. Therefore I think that the corporations should rethink before choosing sexual appeals as a topic in their campaigns. Since sexual appeals are so common today that people do not react to it anymore.

If the advertisement contains sexual behavior that is not in accordance with the product, it is very likely that people might change their attitude towards that product. If corporations use sexual appeal the wrong way in advertisements, people, or in this case, the youth will be against them and maybe go as far as not purchasing the product. Corporations might consider using other tools than sex in advertising, since sex is that common today. Sometimes a product works better with other appeals, such as humor, fear or even guilt.


Belch, G.E. & Severn, J. (1990). The effects of sexual and nonsexual advertising appeals and information level on cognitive processing and communication effectiveness. Journal of advertising, Vol. 19 Issue 1. ISSN 0091-3367

Gould, S.J. (1994). Sexuality and ethics in advertising: A research agenda and policy guideline perspective. Journal of advertising, Vol. 23 Issue 3. ISSN 0091-3367.

Heckler, S.E., Jackson, S. & Reichert, T. (2001). Sexual Appeals in advertising. Journal of advertising, Vol. 30 Issue 1. ISSN 0091-3367.

Henthorne, T.L. & LaTour, M.S. (1994). Ethical judgments of sexual appeals in print advertising. Journal of advertising, Vol. 23 Issue 3. ISSN 0091-3367.

Lambiase, J. & Reichert, T. (2003). Sex in advertising. Mahwah, New Jersey : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-4117-2.

Reichert, T. (2003). The prevalence of sexual imagery in ads targeted to young adults. Journal of consumer Affairs, Vol. 37 Issue 2. ISSN 0022-0078.

Richins, M.L. (1991). Social Comparison and the idealized images in advertising. Journal of consumer research, Vol. 18. ISSN 0093-5301.

Smith, S.M., Anton, M.R., Haugtvedt, C.P. & Jadrich, J.M. (1995). Understanding responses to sex appeals in advertising: An individual difference approach. Advances in consumer research, Vol. 22. ISSN 0098-9258.

Treise, D. & Weigwold, M.F. (1994). Ethics in advertising: ideological correlates of consumer perceptions. Journal of advertising, Vol. 23 Issue 3. ISSN 0091-3367.

Yin, R.K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods. (3rd ed.). Thousand oaks,

California : Sage Publications Inc. ISBN 0-7619-2553-8.

Appendices 1-6

Appendix 1: Interview questions

I will start by showing the group the pictures of the advertisements and then the participants will discuss what they see and feel about the material. When the group is done expressing their reactions I will continue by asking them the following questions:

Question 1: Is there too much sex in advertising and is there a limit where it becomes offensive?

Question 2: Is okay to use sexual appeal in advertisement?

Question 3: Do advertisements with erotic appeal change your attitude toward a brand?

Question 4: Do advertisements with attractive models change your comparison standards for physical attractiveness?

After the questions I asked if the group wanted to add anything else.

Appendix 2


Appendix 3

Appendix 4


Appendix 5



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