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Between the Sheets: Getting to Know Sexualized Marketing Better

Alesia Hsiao
Alesia Hsiao

There is no doubt that "sex sells" is one of the most familiar phrases in marketing. With major brands benefitting from using sex appeal in their marketing campaigns for decades now, risque imagery that was once considered to be taboo or pornographic decades ago can now be found splashed across magazine pages, TV screens, websites, billboards and other marketing channels.

While there have been many discussions about sexuality and ethics in advertising, it does not change the fact that using sexualized marketing has been very successful for countless brands, and will continue to be for a long time to come.

Driven to sex-cess

Brands like Axe certainly has been using sexualized marketing to its advantage. The entire brand has been created with the purpose of "giving guys an edge in the mating game", which is pretty much the concept that drives commercials depicting women being hopelessly attracted to men using Axe deodorant. The year after the initial "The Axe Effect" campaign was launched, sales of the product went up 14 percent.

Another brand enjoying similar success is Procter & Gamble's Old Spice. Thanks to its “Smell like a Man, Man” campaign featuring a bare-chested former NFL receiver Isaiah Mustafa sporting a barely-there towel, sales rose 11 percent after the initial ad run. After three months, sales skyrocketed as much as 107 percent for its Old Spice Body Wash range.

Pearl Tobacco Label

History of sex and marketing

Sexualized marketing was not conceived yesterday. It arguably made its first appearance in 1871 when Pearl Tobacco's packaging can be found with images of a naked female on it.

In 1885, another tobacco company called W. Duke & Sons increased sales of their Duke's Cigarettes products simply by inserting trading cards depicting actresses in risque poses into the packaging.

And who could forget the controversial Calvin Klein ad campaign in 1981 featuring a 16-year-old Brooke Shields uttering the infamous lines: "Want to know what gets between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.”

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Marketing and sex: no strange bedfellows

So how does sexualized marketing works? Thanks to what we call our lizard brain (or old brain), we're tuned into the three things necessary for survival: food, danger and sex (or reproduction).

This subconscious part of our brain never stops scanning our surroundings, and is constantly seeking out food, signs of danger, and opportunities of sex. Whenever our eyes spied sexual imagery, for example, the old lizard brain gets activated and reacts to it, thus prompting us to respond to sexualized marketing messages. Whether or not a fully naked male or female is shown, our lizard brain would still perceive an image of a bare neck, thighs and shoulders as sexual.

Abercrombie billboard

When sexualized marketing no longer works

But what happens when sexualized marketing no longer works as effectively as before? Abercrombie & Fitch discovered this the hard way after years of bombarding the audience with shirtless models and provocative messages.

Recently, Abercrombie & Fitch has announced that they will be toning down their ad campaigns. After their former CEO Mike Jeffries' departure, an overhaul is in the pipeline, and one major change will be downsizing of racy ads.

“By the end of July, there will no longer be sexualized marketing used in marketing materials, including in-store photos, gift cards and shopping bags,” Abercrombie said in a news release.

Mackenzie Bruce, a spokeswoman for Abercrombie echoed this sentiment. "We have moved away from sexualized marketing," Mackenzie Bruce, spokeswoman for Abercrombie, told Adweek. The company has vowed to divorce sexualized marketing and will adapt a more wholesome look this coming season.

What can we expect from the all-new Abercrombie & Fitch? For starters, those attending store openings and launches will not be able to feast their eyes on shirtless models. Stores will also be made brighter with the removal of shutters, and changes will be made to the strong aroma that permeates the environment.

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So what brought about this sudden change? Experts say that this could be due to teen shoppers leaning towards cheaper and trendier fashion competitors such as Forever21. With shares falling about 39% over the past year or so, even the most sexualized marketing in the form of highly attractive brand models sporting the hardest abs and the most chiseled features have failed to keep sales figures up.

However, a new rival can be found in the form of gadgets, and this is threatening the throne held by sexualized marketing. Teens are no longer pulled by the lure of provocative imagery. In fact, they would gladly give up the curves of a tank top-clad bosom in lieu of the latest smartphone's sleek lines or expensive lattes.

In short, brands like Abercrombie & Fitch would have to change more than their shirtless policies in order to wrest attention back from its audience. Even though the curtains has yet to fall on sexualized marketing, Abercrombie has to work hard to reinvigorate their offerings and not just rely on shirtless models. However, they should know that by doing away with their iconic six-pack young men without any real identity replacement, they are killing what makes their brand identifiable. Perhaps Abercrombie has yet to unveil the catch, but whatever it is that they're planning, it had better rival their world famous beefcake.

Image Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images
Alesia Hsiao
Alesia Hsiao
business.com Member
Alesia Hsiao writes for several finance sites and manages content including market commentary and outlook, featured insights, blog posts and tweets through their main social media channels. When she's not putting her knowledge about marketing, finance and investment to good use, Alesia also pens down her thoughts on the wonders of technology how it changes the world for the better. In her free time, Alesia watches indie movies AND her renewable stock portfolio closely..