Sex sells. I’ve carried that common wisdom around so long, I can’t remember when the idea was new to me. Wanna sell your product? Use sex! Of course, the adage doesn’t really mean “sex” or ads would look very different.
It was really sex that sold, we would see more, well, SEX. Fornicating, screwing, messing around, getting taken to church. Two or more people doing sex as a verb together. But that’s not what we see. What we see is naked women, or parts of women.
What’s more, recent studies suggest “sex” (femme nudity) doesn’t actually increase sales or the effectiveness of advertising. Sexual content in ads or in surrounding media content interfered with cognition and memory in tests, and people were less likely to remember a brand name if they’d been exposed to sexual or violent media (a combination often used together in “sex sells” style advertising.)
Sexual content in advertising also puts off many potential customers, for a variety of reasons. Some find the highlighting of unclothed femme parts objectifying. Some are annoyed by the obvious manipulation behind the titillation. Some think nudity has no place in the public sphere. Entirely different populations of shoppers become less likely to buy a product when “sex” is used to sell it.
Most importantly and devastatingly, being exposed to repeated images of objectified female bodies influences children of all genders to devalue women and girls. There is also a strong correlation between advertising exposure and negative body image in teen and preteen girls. Even if “sex sells” were true, we should ask about the cost. Is the emotional and physical well-being of girls a price they should have to pay for the profit of the ad agencies and their clients?
We say “sex sells” but we don’t really mean it. Or else we’d see two male models kissing to advertise beer and we’d see male nudity as often as female nudity. Go Daddy ads would feature men in skimpy costumes and Herbal Essence ads would end with screwing. “Sex” isn’t what’s being sold. “Sexism” is.
I highly recommend the documentary film series “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” by Jean Kilbourne for more information and insight on this topic.