Essay: Sex in advertising

Sex in advertising is described as ‘mediated messages (i.e., television commercials, magazine ads) containing sexual information, with the persuasive purpose of selling branded goods’ (Reichert and Carpenter, 2004: 824). Pervasive types of sexual content may include nudity, innuendo or double entendre (Courtney and Whipple, 1983), or models wearing varying amounts of clothing or depicted showing suggestive physical contact (Reichert et al., 2012). The prevalence of sex in advertising has increased over time (Reichert et al., 2012) and consumers have become increasingly tolerant of it (Dianoux and Linhart, 2010). Much of the seminal work in this area is dated and research has failed to keep to the same pace. As a result, some of the findings in existing literature appear to conflict when transferred to contemporary attitudes.
Literature available on the use of sexual imagery in advertising predominantly examines advertisement content, female role depictions and women’s perception of these depictions. There is a limited body of literature that examines gendered responses to differing level of sexual imagery and the impact that this may have with the viewer’s engagement with the ad. This review will address three areas of literature related to visual attention to advertising and engagement with the ad as a brand experience. In the first section, research relating to the value of sexual imagery in advertising is reviewed. In the second section, gendered responses, existing eye-tracking research and visual attention is discussed. This review ends with an illustration of advertising as a brand experience and its link to Consumer Brand Engagement.
The value of sexual imagery in advertising
After several decades of investigation, it is still held by those in the advertising industry that sex sells (Amyx and Amyx, 2011; Stephey, 2009). In an attempt to break through the adverting clutter and to distinguish themselves from the general noise, brands employ these techniques to attract attention and to stand out from the competition. The fact that advertising employing sexual appeals has become the norm for various consumer product categories, including personal care, perfume, fashion accessories and apparel (Wyllie et al., 2014; Reichert et al., 2011) may explain this effect. As a result, advertising that fails to employ these techniques inevitably risks going unnoticed.
Authors that believe the clich’??sex sells’ posit that sexual advertising increases advertisement awareness, recognition and recall, as compared to advertisements of a non-sexual nature (Reid and Soley, 1981; Reichert and Alvaro, 2001). On a deeper, cognitive level, sexual advertising may attract and hold attention for longer than non-sexual adverts (Reichert et al., 2001a; Belch et al, 1982). Attracting and holding the viewer’s attention is an important precursor to learning, attitudinal and behavioural effects towards brands (Grazer and Keesling, 1995) and also arouses emotion in the viewer which may influence their behavioural response (Hyllegard et al., 2010; Wyllie, 2014). Sexual advertising has been shown to influence behavioural intentions such as purchase intention in comparison to non-sexual advertising (Dudley, 1999, Grazer and Keesling, 1995). However, it is moderately sexual appeals that most stimulated these intentions; rather than high, low or non-sexual conditions (Grazer and Keesling, 1995; Latour and Henthorne, 1994).
In contrast, several authors suggest that the use of sexual imagery may attract and hold attention without typically resulting in a correlated brand recall advantage (Grazer and Keesling, 1995; Severn et al., 1990). Wyllie et al., (2014) assert that this is because the sexual imagery ‘enhances the level of sexual preoccupation’ in the mind and redirects cognitive processing from the product and brand to the sexual nature of the advertising message. Moreover, there is a very fine line between the level of sexual appeal that consumers perceive to be attractive and that which they believe ‘crosses the line’ and becomes offensive. Some researchers report that inappropriate use of explicit sexual appeals may provoke unfavourable reactions when they are perceived as gratuitous (Dahl et al., 2009; Simpson et al., 1996) or as incongruent with the brand being advertised (Petrevu, 2008). In other words, it is important that marketers consider how much nudity, and the levels of implied sexuality, the target market will comfortably accept (Reichert et al., 2011).
While the primary implications of sexual appeals in advertising are disputed, there are a number of other variables that may have an impact on a consumer’s attitude and response to the advertisement. These variables may include the viewers’ predisposed attitudes to the advertiser, evaluations of the advertisements’ execution, the mood evoked by the advertisement, and the degree to which the advertisement affects arousal levels (Solomon, 2010). In addition, morality and personality concepts such as ‘sexual self-schema, sex guilt and the need for cognition’ (Davies et al., 2007; Petrevu, 2008 and Reichert et al., 2007 in Reichert et al, 2011: 437), may all influence a consumer’s response to an advertisement. These variables have an impact in theory and in practice every time a consumer views an advertisement and represent significant gaps in the literature. A possible explanation is that examination earlier work has focused on two primary themes rather than developing the research in these newer areas. The first line of study includes content analysis, looking extensively at the levels of undress in the advertisements (Reichert and Ramirez, 2000; Biswas et al., 1992, Soley and Kurzbard, 1986). The second line of enquiry examines sex-role depiction and women’s perception and response to these depictions (Reichert et al., 2011).
Involvement is another variable that has been shown to influence consumer response to sexual advertising. Petrevu (2008: 58) defines involvement as ‘perceived personal relevance with the target concept’ in light of a consumer’s needs values and interest.

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