Sexually Explicit Images in Advertising

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Sexually Explicit Images in Advertising


By: Tim Boyle

Date: December 8, 2003

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Tim Boyle is a free-lance news and sports photographer based in Chicago.


The exploitation of sex for advertising is a common criticism of the advertising industry. Women, and more recently men, are used to sell everything from toothpaste to beer, although women are featured much more often than men in advertising. Advertisers are taking advantage of the universal human need to feel sexually desirable, and one foundation of the modern consumer society has become human sexuality.

The use of sex to sell a product is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1960s, the French photographer Guy Bourdin used sexual and violent imagery in his photographs in French fashion magazines. Many of Bourdin's models were partially disrobed, with an atmosphere of sexual obsession and decadence pervading his photographs. American photographer Helmut Newton added fetishistic elements to sexually charged advertisements in the 1970s. By the millennium, some advertising photographs implied sadomaschochism, bondage, and lesbian sex.

The use of sexual images in television commercials and print advertisements has increased because they are effective tools for increasing sales. Sexual marketing has hidden costs, though. The exploitation of the body causes a sense of inadequacy among many women who do not have the thin bodies of models. As a result, rates of anorexia and other eating disorders have skyrocketed. More recently, men have fallen victim to the pressure to look like models, with steroid use and eating disorders rising among males.



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The use of sexually explicit images to sell goods and products has expanded to include the employment of sexually attractive personnel as a marketing strategy. Businesses from hotels to clothing stores are increasingly attempting to create a sexual atmosphere. In doing so, some of these companies have become the targets of a wave of private and government anti-discrimination lawsuits.

While it is not illegal to hire attractive people, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, sex, disability or ethnicity. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has charged several companies, including retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch, of practicing race and age discrimination by favoring young white people in their hiring practices. Abercrombie & Fitch prefers a "classic American look" that is young, blond, blue-eyed, and preppy. The retailer finds such workers and models by concentrating it's hiring on certain colleges, fraternities, and sororities. Hispanic, Asian, and black job applicants were steered to jobs in Abercrombie's stockrooms. A federal lawsuit, settled in 2005 for $40 million, required Abercrombie to set up a diversity office and to cease the practice of limiting recruiting to particular fraternities and sororities.

While hiring by looks has a long history, the practice has increased at upscale businesses. Mass marketers, like Wal-Mart, do not typically use sex to sell their brands. Additionally, some clothing chains, notably the Gap and Benetton, encourage managers to build a staff that is filled with people of all ages from a range of different ethnic backgrounds.



Berger, Arthur Asa. Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture: Advertising's Impact on American Character and Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

McBride, Dwight. Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality in America. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Web sites

Abercrombie & Fitch. 〈〉 (accessed March 29, 2006).

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Sexually Explicit Images in Advertising

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