Social Aspects of Sexuality

The use of sexual attraction as a tool of persuasion by drawing attention, interest to a particular product for the purpose of promotion and increase in sales had been a part of marketing and advertising industry for quite some time. The method generally uses attractive models, usually in a suggestive or provocative scene. The past two decades have witnessed an increasing use of explicit sexual appeal in consumer-oriented print advertising and particularly of women as the object of sexual desire that it has reached to the point of being common.The use of sex in advertising can range from being highly overt to extremely subtle; from explicit displays of sexual acts or nudity, down to the use of basic cosmetic products to enhance attractiveness. The more subtle forms of this spectrum have seeped into other types of media. One such example is the criteria in the selection of DJs and announcers, which is based on the “sexiness” of their voice.The use of sexual imagery in advertising has received a barrage of criticisms on various grounds. Moral and religious groups oppose it for being obscene.  Feminist groups raise the issue of women’s rights, that it reduces women as mere ‘objects’. Others believe that it only reinforces sexism.II.   Psychological Basis:Reasons why people purchase the products they do or why they attach importance to some items over others have been subject of interest for businesses which long to find the answers to this phenomenon. Psychological research on product branding, persuasion, and consumer behavior are applied in marketing, advertising, and sales.For the main reason of propping up sales, advertisers had incorporated sexual images to make a product sell. The practice has greatly been influenced by the Psychoanalytic theory, particularly Freud’s concept that man’s behavior is greatly influenced by his hidden, baser instincts, in which sexual needs being the greatest part. Wilson Bryan Key wrote in his book that sex in advertising is simply tapping into the “subliminal” or below the threshold of consciousness. Subliminal stimulation therefore comes from the idea that certain things are seen, heard, or felt that never reach our conscious thought processes.He further stated that the collection of these ‘data’ may still be recorded somewhere in the deep recesses of our mind and have the power to influence our decisions and behavior. People in the advertising profession make use of this concept to show sexual images or suggestions in trying to sell a product. The association of sexual attraction with a particular product is trying to suggest the desirability of the product. Advertisers insist that these images manipulate the consumer’s behavior without them realizing it (WB Key. Subliminal Seduction).Although strictly speaking, Key’s “subliminal perception” is incorrectly used, since perception itself implies conscious awareness. Since the late 1800s, psychologists have originally called it “subception”. Although this concept has been widely accepted as true, research results on this topic showed that subliminal stimulation is incapable of affecting our purchasing behavior, contrary to popular belief in advertisement.III.  Regulations:The advertising industry basically has no real Code of Ethics. It is mainly due to the reason that advertising is a profession of communication which is protected by the First Amendment. Compared to other professions which can adopt a Code that is enforceable by law, legal enforcement of an ethical code for advertising would only have a free run based on free speech guarantees.The First Amendment of the United States Constitution places constraints on government repression of speech. The courts recognize advertising as a form of “commercial speech”. The courts defined commercial speech as something “which does no more than propose a commercial transaction”. Commercial speech therefore is protected by the First Amendment. One of the reasons that the law declares a commercial speech as worthy of regulation is, if it is misleading concerning the product.The closest to a regulatory code of ethics for advertising is the Code of Advertising adopted and enforced by CBBB’s (Council of Better Business Bureaus) National Advertising Division (NAD). Consumer complaints are received by the CBBB; however these complaints are forwarded to the NAD. If a significant number of complaints about that advertiser are received by the NAD, it will then ask the advertiser to follow with the provisions of the Code by stopping or changing the offending advertisement(s). Advertisers are given a chance to appeal their case to the CBBB’s National Advertising Review Board (NARB). At this stage, the case is reviewed by a panel of representatives from three other advertisers, a representative from the advertising agency, and a member of the public. This panel renders a verdict. In the case that a decision has been made which requires the advertiser to modify his ad, and the advertiser disagrees, the NARB notifies the media and the Federal Trade Commission of the situation.Way back in 1924, the American Association of Advertising Agencies published a code of ethics, stating that the following practices were unethical:·         False or misleading claims about the product, whether visual or verbal·         Testimonials which does not truly speak of the real choice of a witness·         Price claims which is purposely done to mislead the public·         Statements which unfairly disparage a competing product or service·         Claims which are unproven/untested, or claims that puts statements out of context to distort the true meaning made by professional or scientific authorities·         Statements, pictures, or suggestions which are offensive to public decency Each of these ethical codes is quite vague in nature which allows a wide range of interpretations. Consequently advertisers push the limits of what is actually acceptable to advertise about their services or wares. It is in the last code wherein sex is more or less addressed as being potentially offensive to the public. The next deliberation is on the issue of what is NOT offensive to one person, may be horrible to another. It is subjective. The responsibility now lies on the advertiser to maintain a delicate balance.A prevailing advertising belief through the last two decades is the power of sexual imagery and suggestions on consumers. Neil E. Harrison, of the Canadian Business and Current Affairs wrote that “advertisers recognize that ‘sex sells’ because it attracts attention”. It is not sexual images or suggestion that sells the product per se, but the technique of attention-getting that has always been the cornerstone of advertising — whether consumers look with interest, or look in disgust. The point advertisers seek is for consumers to LOOK, and if the imagery pushes the borderline of what is shocking or offensive, the more it is retained in the consumer’s memory. However, an article “Playing the Game” wrote that sexual images are ineffective especially when it is ironically diametrically opposed to the product it tries to sell (T Ball, P Avers. “A Brief History of Sex in Advertising”). IV.   Effectiveness:Sex in marketing through the years has become raunchier and raunchier, with each advertisement trying to outdo the last. Since it has become a powerful force in the marketing industry, we see the market being saturated with signs of glamorous blond women and muscle-rippling playboys. However, recent studies indicate that such a tool is no longer the sure-way answer to every marketing officer’s prayer.In the United Kingdom, different studies were done on the effects of sex or its subtle forms in advertising for today’s consumers. HeadlightVison Ltd., the world’s second-largest advertising company based in U.K., has found that the saturation of sexual imagery in advertising is fast becoming a turn-off on many consumers. This particular research was done in 14 financial capital cities around the world, including London and New York. Data gathered indicated that urban consumers were getting tired of sexual explicitness in advertising.Another notable research was done by Chartered Institute of Marketing, with 1,000 respondents, which concluded that only six percent of this sample group enjoyed or were influenced by sexual images in ads.In the U.S., Abercrombie & Fitch Co. made a decision to stop publishing a quarterly catalog which displayed photos of scantily clad models. Such a drastic decision may be caused by protests, or more substantially by the thirteen percent drop of sales, which was reported a month before the decision was announced. These facts are cropping up, which state that the power of sexual imagery in selling products is declining.A reason for this trend, according to these studies, is not being contrary to Freudian concepts but it is the quantity of sexual advertising which is the problem. According to Matthew Hirst, the London-based editor of Headlight publication D_Code, this generation has grown so used to being surrounded by sexual imagery. In the 1960s, sexual taboos were loosened. Sexual themes were beginning to be explicitly carried out on books, films, television, and music. Society at this time became more liberated in their expression of their own sexual attitudes. It was inevitable that it spread into marketing. The aim of companies is to capture the consumer’s attention. The combination of sex being a taboo for some time, and the principle of novelty caused advertisers to get the desired effect. It became a common practice in marketing strategies to regularly use sex to help sell things.The feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s counteracted this loosening of taboos, which frowned on the use of women’s bodies to sell products. Though it created a stir, the fading of this movement also released advertisers. For these reasons, that up to these last recent years, all taboos have gone. However, one of the main rules of economics is the law of diminishing returns. It means that the more often one does something, the less you get out of it.Therefore, the method of sexual imagery in marketing campaigns had become so commonplace that it has lost the power to affect the people. Sexual innuendos in selling a product won’t influence anyone to pick the product, let alone buy it.These shocking revelations now suggest that companies will have to find other ways to attract interest and promote their goods (L.Matthew. “Sex in Advertising: Europe’s Shoppers Get Weary of Sex in Advertising”).The study done by the trends analysis arm of marketing company WPP, HeadLightVision, suggests that many young adults are trying to recapture their innocence through the imagery of “play…silliness and family-style togetherness”. Advertisers are recommended to take a more wholesome marketing appeal to reach out the young urban trendsetters who had grown bored with sexually explicit ads.Another research analyzed women’s reactions to sexual appeal in commercials, and examined the relationship between women’s sexual schemas with their responses. People’s cognitive views of themselves which predict approach-avoidance to sexual behavior and sexual information is referred to as sexual schemas. Finding show that only women who have more positive sexual self-schemas had more positive attitudes toward the commercial and brand. Significantly however, purchase intention was not affected (See “Women’s Responses to Sex in Advertising Examining the Effect of Women’s Sexual Self-Schema on Responses to Sexual Content in Commercials”).The use of women in sexual advertisement as the ‘object’ continues, because women are perceived as rewards for men. Because of the advertising motto that “sex sells”, ads are not limiting to show women only. Men too are displayed in many ways. Although they are shown with more muscles to convey characteristics of being cool, confident, powerful, and independent, such ads can diminish men as much as they do on women. The University of Wisconsin showed a study in 2002 that the focus on muscular male bodies is causing men a lot of insecurities (T Baranski, J Batt. “Women and Advertising: A Little Too Sexy?”).Although most companies utilize sex as their largest promoter of their product(s), negative results may never be far behind. Sexual ads do not always appeal to all consumers and accept sex as an acceptable marketing tool. A study done by Susan Cummings for the American Demographics Magazine, quoted that “75 percent of women and 53 percent of men aged 35 to 54 said that sex in advertising can be offensive” (Cited in “Sex Sells…No, Really!”).Other concerns being raised is how the youth react to this and how they perceive sex in advertising. Findings suggest that young men are not as affected as young women concerning buying behavior and self-confidence by the sexual appeals in advertisements. There are many different opinions on how sexual appeal in advertising is defined. A slight difference had been found between young men and women. Sexual appeal for young women did not depend on how people looked in the advertisement. Focus is more on movement. It does not even have to include nudity, and models need not be exceptionally good looking for the ad to be even considered sexual. Young men also believe that the movement and the appearance of the models are of great importance. Both genders perceive an ad as sexual through words and images, even without images of nudity among the characters. Therefore, this study came to the following conclusions: that advertisement do not have to contain nudity to be perceived by young men and women as sexual in character; even movement and appearance of the models in the advertisement can make it sexual in nature; young men differ from their women counterparts in the sense that they believe that exceptional good looks among models require an ad campaign to be so. They also believe that there is too much sex in advertising, even observing that there are companies who make use of sexual appeal even if their product is discordant with the sexual image. These young men also see advertisements as discriminating to both men and women. This research also came to the same conclusion that buying behavior does not change, since nudity in advertisement has become so common.Young female respondents also believe that there is too much sex in advertising and these failed to elicit responses. Reaction of tension came only if the image is tasteless. However, for young women, attitude and buying behavior might change if an advertisement based on sexual appeal is too sexual. A favorable response comes only if the sexual appeal is done tastefully and the appeal has any connection towards the brand. Their self-image and confidence is affected when it showed attractive models. Corporations are then urged to make considerations in aiming advertising towards youth in using sexual appeals in their advertisement campaigns (M Hultin, E Lundh. “Sex in Advertising: How it Influences Young Men and Women”). V.   Conclusion:Sex in advertising has always been a subject of controversy. While its early years brought opposition concerning moral issues, more and more are now questioning whether it is still as effective.  Some are beginning to be convinced that nowadays it does not always help the product it’s promoting, it can even court disaster and damage. Advertising exists to deliver the right message to its target consumers. The use of an irrelevant ‘object’ such as a bikini-clad model may not necessarily deliver the company’s message to the right people. Marketing consultants advise that advertisements should be relevant to the target audience, one’s business and the company’s message. Although such a course had been found to be the longer road, its effects are longer lasting (K. Stirtz. “For Most of Us, Sex Does Not Sell”).Gerard Tellis, PhD has studied different aspects of advertising effectiveness for twenty years wrote 10 myths about advertising widely believed by the public at large. Marketers perpetuate these myths since they fall back on their personal experiences or casual observation rather than on more objective research findings. It mentions the statement that “sex sells” and labels it as one of the advertising myths. As supported by recent studies, sex appeal is effective in drawing attention, but not always positive attention that stimulates the desired perceptions or behaviors. So why do sexual imagery continue to be used in marketing despite these glaring facts? Trellis observed that firms often persist with ineffective ads. There are several reasons for this, including the lack of sufficient testing, fear of the effect if one cuts back, and pressures in competition. Furthermore, ad managers may boost advertising to bring sales to hit top line goals, or may simply use up unspent advertising budget rather than risk losing the money in the following year’s budget. Such a behavior pattern often result in running unprofitable advertising since ad managers do not always seek to know how effective or not their campaigns really are. Shifting ad strategies by scrapping off sex in ad campaigns where a particular company has grown used to may erroneously conclude that the lack of sexual innuendos is ineffective to pick up product sales. This is because advertising’s effects are not instantaneous. A portion of an ad campaign’s effect can extend beyond the life of the campaign for a number of reasons. One is that consumers take time to absorb and trust messages that interest them. It becomes more effective if they hear positive comments about them from their peers. Yet, research findings have shown that interest in a product or company does not often motivate consumers to make a purchase until they have a need for that item. The carryover effect can be taken advantaged by the advertising company since they can stop for brief periods without suffering immediate loss in sales. In fact, the opposite is true. Taking breaks in-between flights may work better compared to continuous long-term runs and those that do not take breaks can overuse an effective campaign. The loss of interest by young adults on sexual images can be attributed to one of Tellis’ conclusions which state that wear-in is very rapid, while wear-out occurs early. A critical process for any advertising strategy is optimization. The increase of effectiveness due to repetition is what is being referred to as “wear-in”. But once it reaches over the threshold, consumer saturation sets in, known as “wear-out”. In general, the faster the threshold is reached, the more rapid the descent (G. Tellis, PhD. Effective Advertising: Understanding When, Why, and How Advertising Works).


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