I like sex. And, unless you're part of the 1% of the world that's asexual, it's safe to assume that you like sex too. This makes it a common denominator for all us humans, and consequently a very powerful tool when you want to sell something.

Sex is however also a complicated marketing tool, because a certain taboo still rests on it. If you talk about your sex life at the breakfast table when you’re visiting your parents, someone is bound to cough up their tosti or spit out their juice. Yet, PornHub saw 28.5 billion visits last year, which is roughly 1,000 visits per second. An interesting contrast, but one of the main reasons that sex sells: we all want it, but it’s secret and intriguing. Some advertisers have ‘done the deed well’ when it comes to sex in ads, and some not so much. One ad I remember myself and really liked because of the direct yet playful pun was Diesel:

We are biologically programmed to notice sexual content as relevant because it concerns the survival of the species. According to a study published in The Journal of Sex Research, men on average think about sex 19 times per day, whereas women think about sex 10 times per day. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, thinking about sex 10 to 19 times per day is a significant enough number to be interesting to advertisers. So, sex gets our attention because we inherently crave sex, and it is this ‘craving’ feeling that really turns advertisers on. In general, when ads are more sexually provocative, men and women are drawn to them. However, sex can't sell everything, as there must be relevant context involved. In particular, alcohol, fashion, perfume, and car advertisements have created strong links to images of a sexual nature. A very good example of this is Axe, as the following commercial illustrates.

The key to Axe’s success is thorough data-driven research and connection with their target group. Each year new boys enter the age when they feel like ‘almost men’ and start thinking about girls and how to attract them. Because of its bold campaigns, Axe will always be related to sex in the minds of consumers. It can pull it off because its product is also related to sexuality (smelling good to attract). However, this does not hold true for every product, as the past has shown.

Marketing bureau Gallup & Robinson noted “the use of the erotic is a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace”, “although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser”. It turns out that less than 10% of those observed in a study exposed to sexual ads were able to recall the brand that was advertised (quick side note: these were all men). This means that erotic annotations can ‘suck’ up all the viewers’ attention, so they don’t notice anything else. As a result, sex can overshadow the message when a product is not related at all to sex. This becomes even worse when advertisers do not include humour or subtility. All these ‘misfires’ come together in the following ad about an energy drink:

Without humour, sex can become obscene. Dolce & Gabbana had to ‘prematurely eject’ this ad, with a lot of angry consumers relating the scene to rape:

It’s all about subtility, humour and a dash of imagination. A bit of a ‘misfire’ was by the following vodka brand. The ad does not look aesthetically pleasing, almost painful, and seems quite irrelevant:

A better example of subtility in sexual connotation is this excellent durex ad:

Or a little less subtle:

Volkswagen also properly understood how to use sex in a subtly humorous way:

Of course, we live in a time where we have to watch out in advertising not to step on anyone’s toes. And toes are easily stepped on nowadays. More and more brands realize that using women's bodies to sell products when often women make decisions about household spending, may not be so smart. Seeing a photoshopped image of a supermodel was a popular technique to show consumers exactly what they could have if they bought the product. However, audiences seem to have become smarter and less sensitive to ‘perfect images’ nowadays. The controversies regarding the ethically dubious role of advertising in setting impossible beauty standards have made sure we think twice about perfect.

Abercrombie & Fitch is a good example of a brand who has noticed this change. The clothing company were known for using highly-sexual ads to promote their products but have recently changed their policy.

This was Abercrombie & Fitch just a couple of years ago:

And this was A&F in 2018 after their radical ‘ethics in advertising’ change:

The following Wonderbra ad would probably evoke some discussion in today’s society. In my opinion, it has the ingredients that should make it a successful ad: sarcastic humour and enough subtility in mentioning sex. I think it is quite liberating and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, especially since it is targeted towards women (also I like cooking so that compensates). However, one could argue that it is sexist. Ah, welcome to 2019. Don’t we all love a discussion nowadays?

Sex is here to stay, but it probably won't be featured as prominently in mass-market advertising as it used to be. Not in the least because the rise of the internet has created a massive amount of readily available and much stronger sexual material (read: porn). Hence, if sex still sells in advertising is very much dependent on content and context. If you are advertising deodorant or lingerie, it may be very effective to use sex as a selling strategy. However, if you're selling gaming computers or tomato soup with nudity and sex, you might not be ‘pressing the right buttons’. Your strategy will be way too obvious to the consumer and the product will lose its (sex) appeal. To ‘finish off’, here’s my personal favourite. Again, by one of the absolute sexperts in advertising: Diesel.

(Cover photo belongs to the Diesel Spring/Summer campaign 2010)