They say sex sells – but not like this

October 14th, 2015 / Sophie Allen

This morning, I was happily scrolling through my Twitter feed when this came up as a promoted post.


It was pretty terrible, and quite a few of the replies – from their target market – reflected that. Here’s just one of ’em.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – I don’t want stuff like this on my feed, so to have it forced under my nose in a promoted post is pretty irritating. There are a lot of things Missguided could have done with that messaging to make it fun, cheeky or empowering; instead, they just went for a strangely and overtly sexy image of a woman on all fours.

But it got me thinking about why it was there: because even today, sexualised images sell. But should they? And if we are using sex in advertising, should our approach be different?

Brands like American Apparel have often been called out for their over-sexualised (sometimes borderline pornographic) ads, which while designed to shock and make the brand appear sexy are totally demeaning to and objectifying of women in the process.

The root of this kind of advertising is obviously in a wider social problem, where despite there having been some great strides for equality there are a lot of issues still sticking around, and those unaffected by sexism can sometimes – extremely wrongly – dismiss it as a thing of the past.

There’s also the issue with the way advertising works; ultimately, the point of advertising or any kind of marketing exercise is to create attention for the brand, and things that are controversial or even almost offensive will nearly always generate conversation – even if it’s negative.

A recent example is the controversy over Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign, which led to hundreds of complaints and an ASA investigation – but at the end of the day, it was described as a “brilliant campaign” by their head of global marketing. Why? Their team has boasted that sales tripled after the campaign, because the uproar around their controversial imagery actually boosted engagement and created huge amounts of exposure for the brand.

Looking at the figures in black and white, it seems like brands will only be encouraged to use messaging that could be over-sexualised or inappropriate, because regardless of who it offends it’ll still get them loads of attention.

But, as advertisers, isn’t it our responsibility to help our industry progress with the times? In today’s society it’s not okay to objectify women, and it’s up to us to reflect that in our approach, our concepts, and our messaging. I’m no prude, and sex will always be something used in advertising, but the way it’s used needs to be in line with current attitudes to gender roles, relationships, and sexuality, as well as appropriate to the brand.

Sex has been used to sell since 1911, at a point when women were so belittled by society that they didn’t even have the vote.

In 2015, shouldn’t we be looking at things differently?

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