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Riffs on marketing, writing, creativity and life ––

Does sex sell? An in-depth look at sex in advertising.

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I like having sex. And, unless you're part of the 1% of the world that's asexual, it's safe to assume that you like having sex too.

Sex, however, is a complicated subject. It's taboo. If you talk about it at the dinner table someone is bound to cough up their mashed potatoes or spit out their iced tea. Yet, last year in 2017, PornHub saw 28.5 Billion visits, which is roughly 1,000 visits per second. So, while we aren't talking about it, we are most definitely thinking about it. 

Sex in advertising is a practice even more frowned upon than just strictly sex itself. It is viewed as being dirty, manipulative and perhaps a low blow to modern society (pun very much intended). 

And now, more than ever before, this relationship has become strained due to a growing popularity in feminist movements and an increasing awareness of the inequality that women face on a day to day basis.

So, as I explore this relationship between advertising and sex and ultimately answer the question of whether or not sex sells, I hope to remain very respectful of this growing awareness, that I must say, is very much past due. 

Sex in advertising, a long and complicated relationship.

Copywriting blog.

Whether you're in advertising or not, everyone is familiar with the phrase, "sex sells". And, while Diesel was by no means the first brand to pair advertising and sex, they did set the advertising world on fire back in 2010 after crafting an ad out of this age-old saying.

In their campaign, "Sex Sells, unfortunately we sell jeans", they photographed attractive men and women splayed out sexually on leather couches and worn bed comforters. While I'm not sure how many jeans the campaign actually sold, it certainly raised brand awareness for Diesel after going viral on the internet. 

Diesel was obviously not the first brand to toy with this advertising and sex strategy. Historians believe the first to test the waters with this concept was Pearl Tabacco back in 1871. After featuring a naked woman on its packaging, the rest was history. 

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Since Pearl, thousands and thousands of brands have followed suit. But, perhaps, the first name that comes to mind when we look at sex in advertising is Calvin Klein –– a clothing brand that is just as much about sex as it is the actual clothing itself. And, while one could certainly argue that Calvin Klein has pushed the limits from time to time, no one can argue with their success. Which, raises another question...

Does sex sell? 

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The short answer is yes, sex sells. We as humans crave sex. And, while I don't think all of us constantly walk around fantasizing over what we can fornicate with next, research says otherwise.

According to a study published in The Journal of Sex Research, men on average think about sex 19 times per day, whereas women think about sex 10 times per day. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, thinking about sex 10 to 19 times per day is a significant enough number that it would tickle an advertisers interest. 

When we look to pop-culture, this theme stays pretty consistent –– back in 2012 there was a study done that said 92% of the 174 songs that made it onto Billboard's Top 10 had sexual or reproductive references.

Now, one could argue that these 174 songs were simply the best songs out at the time... but I think otherwise. I think sex sells. I think sex sells music. I think sex sells clothing. I think sex sells supplements. I think sex sells beauty products. And, I think sex sells much much more. 

And, while some might argue that the whole sex in advertising strategy is generally targeted towards men and doesn't work as well on women –– books like Fifty Shades of Grey which sold 125 million copies around the world say otherwise. 

So, the bottom line is that sex sells and it always will sell. But, I think there is a right and a wrong way to pair advertising and sex.

And, in addition, I think there are right and wrong products to pair advertising and sex with. Below, I will be highlighting a handful of examples of sex in advertising. Some have done the deed well. Some, not so much.

Good examples of sex in advertising.  

I'm an optimist, so I will begin with the good. However, I must say, I was disappointed at how difficult it was to track down examples of sex in advertising done well. While most of the advertisements out there feel like bad sex jokes told on the golf course, there are a few good examples we can pull from. 

Durex: $2.50 > $217

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I find the above Durex advertisement to be great. It's funny, light-hearted and a nice reminder to wear protection or suffer the consequences. Durex obviously incorporates sex in their advertising... they're a condom brand for God's sake. But, I think this is an example of doing advertising and sex the right way. 

Viagra: See the world differently

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This is another example of sex in advertising done well. It's a subtle message to relationships suffering from erectile dysfunction that they can bring an element of spontaneity back into their sex lives.

You'll notice it doesn't make the woman out to be an object. It presents more of a subtle message, "Remember when you two used to have sex all over the place? You can do that again."

Hedkandi: Love what you see. 

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Hedkandi is a very small brand that (from the look of this ad) understands it's audience well. I find this advertisement to be a refreshing take on many that we see in the beauty space. It sexually and provocatively states, "Look your best for you."

I think many of the advertisements we see in the beauty space utilize sex to pressure women and men to look their best for the wrong reasons. Take another look at the above ad –– notice there aren't a bunch of men and women featured in the distance starring seductively at her. It's just her, alone, in a bathroom... in love with herself. That's a damn good advertisement. 

Bad examples of sex in advertising. 

Fair warning, some of these images are probably going to make you cringe. They're supposed to. I purposefully scanned the web for some of the worst examples of sex in advertising to show you how you shouldn't go about pairing advertising and sex together.

While the duo can be a fun, playful and enticing advertising strategy for your brand, they can easily be taken too far. Below you will find a few examples of sex in advertising done poorly. 

Dolce & Gabbana: The submissive woman. 

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Dolce & Gabbana have been notorious for not only pushing the limits but surpassing them altogether in advertising and sex, and have received plenty of well-deserved heat from the public because of it.

I chose D&G as my first example because there really can't be any argument made against this advertisement being inappropriate. I'm not entirely sure if their intentions were to depict a gang rape, but if you have one woman pinned down to the ground with four men staring at her like she's a snack... well that's what most people are going to perceive. So, lesson number one –– when it comes to sex in advertising, try to avoid weird rapey ads. 

Durex: Really big.

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I could be wrong. This is just one man's opinion. But, I find this advertisement to be a bit cringe-worthy. While Durex's previous advertisement had a fun tongue-in-cheek playfulness about it, this feels like it crosses the line from sexual to sexist.

Not to mention, I don't fully understand the strategy behind the ad –– "Your phallus is so big that women need mouth bandages after sucking it... so here... wear our extra large condoms!"

If you're going to utilize sex in advertising, be sure there is some sort of strategy behind it... otherwise, it will just come across as a bad sex joke that no one laughs at. 

Flirt Vodka: Scrapped knees.

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I feel pretty comfortable saying that Flirt Vodka missed the mark here too. They took an advertisement that could have been very sexy and made it tough to look at. There is a way to pair alcohol and sex without depicting blowjob induced knee lacerations. But, I digress. 

Using sex in advertising. 

If you're considering using sex in advertising your product or service, I would first ask yourself what it is you're trying to sell. For example, while to most, it might seem that sex pairs well with selling mattresses, it doesn't. 

When advertising mattresses, you're really just selling a good night's sleep. Nobody goes out and spends $10,000 on a mattress for the sole purpose to have sex on it. No, you spend that kind of money on a mattress to get a better night's sleep. 

Use common sense here. Kitchen appliances, furniture and insurance are a few more examples of products and services where sex wouldn't really work in advertising.

In addition, before releasing an ad, I would get multiple women's opinions first –– even if you're a woman who wrote the ad (and especially if you're a man). I have found that men, for the most part, can be pretty awful at determining what women find offensive. 

I imagine that if Durex or Flirt (advertisements referenced above) would have just asked a few women for their opinions on their advertisements... the ads would have never been released. 

The bottom line? I think sex in advertising works. And, I don't think it is wrong to pair the two together. But, I think it is wrong when sexual advertising crosses the line into womanizing or being sexist. While everybody likes to have sex. Nobody likes to feel like an object. 

Sex sells... when it's done the right way. 

By Cole Schafer.

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Cole Schafer