Advertising and Portrayals of Sexuality
The purpose of advertising is threefold—to get your attention, to get you physiologically excited, and to associate that excitement with the product being advertised. The excitement can be intellectual, emotional, physical (sports, for example), or visual (fast – moving action, wild colors); but when you think of “getting excited,” what immediately comes to mind? Well, that is what comes to the mind of advertising executives also, and so ads often use sexual images or suggestions to provoke, to entice—in short, to seduce.
Sexuality (especially female sexuality) has been used to sell products for decades. In an analysis comparing magazine advertisements in 1964 with advertisements in 1984, Soley and Kurzbard (1986) found that although the percentage of advertisements portraying sexuality did not change, sexual illustrations had become more overt and visually explicit by 1984. By the late 1990s, a variety of advertisers, including Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, were challenging the limits with advertising campaigns that featured graphic nudity or strong sexual implications. Although Abercrombie was forced to withdraw many of its catalogs because of public outcry, today clothing manufacturers and perfume companies constantly try to out-eroticize each other.
Today ads with nudity and sexual innuendo are commonplace.
Not all portrayals of sexuality are this blatant, however.
Some are suggestive, such as sprays of soda foam near the face of an ecstatic looking woman, models posing with food or appli-
ances placed in obviously phallic positions, models posed in sexual positions even if clothed, or ads that show women and, less often, men whose faces are contorted in sexual excitement. Some authors even claim that advertisements have tried to use subliminal sexuality—pictures of phalluses or breasts or the word sex worked into advertisements so they cannot be seen without extreme scrutiny (J. Levine, 1991). Whether these strategies work is a matter of much debate, but Calvin Klein’s ads were so provocative that news reports about them appeared in newspapers and on television news shows—and that is just what advertisers want most for their ads and the products they represent, for people to talk and think about them.