Give ‘Em Something to Talk About

Sex stimulates the advertising world as media regulations wane

By Jamie Miles

A sexually charged billboard hung high above New York City’s SoHo. It featured a female model lying on a boy as she kissed a second male. All three wear only Calvin Klein jeans, no shirts. Another male model lies on the floor with his shirt and pants unbuttoned, suggesting an impending orgy.

Calvin Klein is known for racy advertising, but other clothing retailers, burger chains, and nonprofits join the ranks as risqué campaigns prove that less (clothing and morality) delivers more. Sexuality is an old marketing strategy, but has now been resurrected as unregulated media, like Web sites, allow for the exchange of banned videos and images. “Most everything is becoming more liberal in the media,” said Edward Russell, assistant professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “In the late 1970s, Brooke Shields talked on TV about nothing getting between her and her Calvins. Today, GUESS looks like their models will be having sex as soon as you turn the page.”

Fast-food joints like Burger King also embrace explicit advertising. Burger King promotes its new “super seven incher” to a Singapore audience with the tagline “It’ll blow your mind away.” It features the image of a girl with her mouth wide-open, inches from the sandwich.

And sexual advertisements aren’t just limited to for-profit companies looking to increase sales.A recent breast-cancer awareness ad for the “Save the Boobs” campaign featured a bikini-clad girl walking around a pubic pool. People stared as the camera zoomed in on her bouncing chest. And like germs at an all-you-can-eat buffet, the video spread rampant across the Internet and garnered much attention, shocking people with its mingling of sex and service.

“People like sex. They like having it, watching it, thinking about it, and remembering it,” Russell said. “If it’s used to get viewer’s attention by a product that can benefit from it, it’s fair game.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have also been guilty of overt advertising in the recent “Cruelty Doesn’t Fly” campaign starring Pamela Anderson as a sexy airport-security guard. Three airports banned the ad because cable providers feared it would offend travelers. The clip shows fictional passengers stripped and patted down by Anderson, who wears little more than aviators and hooker boots.

Despite the widespread appearance of sex in advertising, some see it as a fault. “I think there are very few advantages to using sex in non-sexual categories other than as a crude attention-getting device,” said Kevin O’Neill, an advertising professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, who added that while suggestiveness keeps escalating, it may just feel more prevalent because of media proliferation.

But crudely won attention still proves eye popping and money grabbing. London’s Daily Mail declared nudity as a “bona fide style trend” in an article entitled “Is nudity the next big thing?” Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, and American Apparel all recently created banned X-rated advertisements, viewable online, that feature models in little clothing or nothing at all.

Although many of the sexually overt advertisements may be aimed at more liberal areas of the world or limited audiences, these advertisements spread to the masses through Web outlets that do not mediate content. As long as sex remains a popular marketing strategy, advertisements will continue to contain nudity, suggestive innuendos, and promiscuity.

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