Sex Sells?

3 Oct
Ad for Snickers bar

Ad for Snickers bar

Ever heard of selling ice to the Eskimos? Why pray tell would you sell ice to an Eskimo? That’s easy. It is because a corporate wants to make profits. But then, why would an Eskimo buy ice? Because an advertising agency sold it to him of course. Probably by having a naked or semi-naked model rubbing herself with the ice in the freezing Artic. eskimo_ice_sales Advertising and Ethics is a tetchy subject the world over. But it has to be addressed. In Sri Lanka, where the advertising industry goes largely unregulated except for certain ordinances and acts such as the Food Act, Consumer Affairs Authority Act and the Obscene Publications Act, many marketers and advertisers have a free hand to sell their clients’ products – and they would like to keep it that way. “Advertising is a creative field and we need to have space to work that creativity. Once an authoritarian body starts implementing rigid rules and regulations, it would kill that creative spirit, which is undesirable” says Anton, a creative director at a local ad agency. The problem however is that the Sri Lankan advertising industry does not have even a professional regulatory body or a code of ethics to go by. Most of the marketers and ad people interviewed did not think this was a problem but it is not a view shared by the average consumer at large. There is widespread irritation among the consumers of Sri Lanka about misleading product ads as well as sexism in the ads.

The women rather than the men are vocal about the sexism, as it is the women who feel maligned the most, but males too tend to agree that the sexism is not a good thing. “There is an ad for women’s deodorants on TV that shows ladies having bad body odour and having to use deodorants in order to overcome it. What’s the idea being showcased? That women smell bad? If they target the male population, they will show a male, fresh and clean after a bath, spraying deo, which will then have the ladies falling all over him,” says a disgruntled TV watcher. And he happens to be male. He thinks the ad shows a clear bias in how men and women are treated in advertisements.

A marketer contacted for his view disagreed. “We just do research on what the target audience feel like and then sell the product to them based on their perceived need. In a man’s case, he probably wouldn’t care too much about being well groomed and smelling good. All his thoughts would be centered on the ladies and how to get them. So he is shown an ad that says, using the product would attract women. In the women’s case, their primary interest in a deodorant would not be about attracting males but preserving their own freshness throughout the day. So they are shown the ad that targets that need.”

deodorant-police-woman print.img_assist_custom-480x316

Part of the Deo ad in question

As for the sexism in ads, many of the women interviewed said they found the use of female bodies to sell unrelated products annoying. They also didn’t think it worked. They couldn’t understand why a woman’s thigh or cleavage should be shown to sell a car. Among the men however, even those who agreed it was sexist (some didn’t), there was a general consensus that ‘sex sells’ and therefore the strategy worked.

Ad for bakery products

Ad for bakery products

According to Professor Gamini Hapuarachchi, consultant psychologist and lecturer, Kelaniya University, the use of women’s bodies to sell goods is just a ‘habit’ in the advertising industry, whether it is relevant or not. “Traditionally it was believed that using sexy women would psychologically excite the males who were the target segment of these ads – that they would then associate the excitement with the product being sold and go buy the product,” says Professor Hapuarachchi.  “However there is no statistical back-up for this belief. Over time, it has just become a habit within the advertising industry now.”

Shane, a business development manager said that ‘hormones work!’ and so obviously using sexy models to sell products worked. Regarding the selling of unrelated items such as cars, he said, “There is this idea of ‘projection’ in advertising where you use something unrelated yet symbolic to sell a product. For example, a car manufacturer might liken his automobile to a cheetah, a tiger or a deer. Each of those animals have certain characteristics that would immediately convey to the target customer what the values being sold are. The female models are something similar. It is just a way of saying, hey our cars are likewise sexy, sleek and streamlined.” A female ad person, interviewed on the same topic disagreed. “I notice, at automobile exhibitions, the car enthusiasts are actually annoyed to see the models draped over the car. They came to see the car not girls and their focus is only on the car. They sometimes ask the girls to move away.”

So guys, does this convince you to buy the car?

So guys, does this convince you to buy the car?

Shane, the business development manager happens to be a car enthusiast too. Getting back to him on how he felt as a consumer as opposed to a marketer at these trade shows, he agreed with the lady advertiser. “Yeah, those girls are actually a nuisance. I go to check out the car models and they get in the way. But that’s just me as a car enthusiast. For the average person, those models would still attract males to the stalls and then they would check out the car too.” Given how expensive the product in question is however, he agreed that the models would not ultimately influence the buying decision of the customer. Anyone buying a car whether he be an informed person or not, would still do a lot of research on the model (car that is) before investing his money. What use is it then to showcase the girls? Shane was compelled to admit, nothing. “It’s just a tradition I guess. Companies selling cars have come to think of it as a necessity but it really has no extra value. Other than as I said before, reminding customers by association that their cars are sleek and beautiful.”

Does sex really sell anything though? There have been studies published both for and against, but the findings seem to vary over time. An international research company MediaAnalyzer carried out a study in 2005, which seemed to indicate the surfeit of sexualization in ads had made many people switch off instead of being turned on. According to the study, although almost half the men said that they liked sexual ads, less than 10% of those that were exposed to the sexual ads could recall the brand that was advertised (compared to 19.8% for non-sexual ads). MediaAnalyzer calls that the “vampire effect” – with the sexual object sucking up all the attention. On the women side, 28% said there were too many sexual ads, and while they tend to avoid the sexual imagery when looking at sexual ads, their brand recall with sexual ads was less than half that of non-sexual ads (10.8% vs. 22.3%). The study hypothesizes that this might be attributable to a general numbing effect that sexual stimuli has on the brain.

Asked about the ethics of using sex to sell, there was a divide between male and female marketers. A female ad person said she was not happy about it but the industry was driven by the client and most company owners being males of an older generation had a lot to do with it. “Many of these clients have entrenched, sexist ideas and there is very little that ad people can do to challenge it. Many of them actually sit at our table and say things like, ‘women should not work’ or ‘show the mother (who of course has to be young and beautiful) as a housewife in a sari.’ We just learn to leave our personal ethics at the door and give them what they want, otherwise we will lose either the client or at a personal level, our jobs.” She said that she found this upsetting personally even though she was involved in it professionally, but that there was not much of a movement in Sri Lanka to combat it as there is in other countries, so nothing much could be done about it at the moment.

A male colleague of hers however disagrees. “I really don’t get these neo-feminists. Yes, sex sells and we use it. So what’s wrong with it? We use male bodies too for that matter. Cultural values and ethics change across time and cultures so why should we let a small group dictate to us? If the models themselves have no problems showcasing their bodies, why are the feminists baying on their behalf? Personally, I see nothing wrong with sexuality or nudity. They are both natural phenomena and the policing around them are just human constructs. Those constructs change across time and cultures, so we shouldn’t let them dictate to us.” He clarified further, “The ad agencies are being accused of misogyny. Misogyny is defined as hatred of women. In what way is showing beautiful bodies, hatred of women? There was recently an outcry about a plus sized clothing manufacturer advertising their products on bill boards. I really don’t get what all that fuss was about. It showed a pluz sized model, smartly dressed, being admired by male colleagues. There are two issues here. First, plus sized people really have problems shopping for clothes so it is useful to them to know which places cater to them. Second, the manufacturer has to get across that the clothes are attractive and nice. They chose male collegues’ admiration to do that. Being plus sized is natural. Wanting to be attractive to the opposite sex is also natural. If an advertiser made use of both those facets, what’s the feminists’ problem? They are trying to police too much how we can think and act.”


So what do YOU think of this ad?

All the ad people though, agreed that it was the young and beautiful who could effectively ‘sell’ products. They seem to have become victims of their own propaganda. Once upon a time, youth and beautiful bodies were not really necessary to get a point across or sell a product. Two of the most famous examples would be Mahatma Gandhi and Angarika Dharmapala’s septuagenarian mother. b8 Remember the famous portrait of a bald, scrawny Gandhi spinning cloth at his wheel? He managed to convince an entire generation of Indians to go back to homespun cloth with it. On our own shores, the sari as a national dress was advertised by Angarika Dharmapala, who wanted to wean women away from the European skirts and blouses they were wearing at the time. He used his seventy-five year old mother to model the sari – and she effectively sold it to a generation of Sri Lankan women, who have kept perpetuating it thereafter.

Mallika Hewavitharana mother of Angarika Dharmapala modeling the sari as an ideal dress of national identity

Mallika Hewavitharana mother of Angarika Dharmapala modeling the sari as an ideal dress of national identity

2 Responses to “Sex Sells?”

  1. Meg October 3, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    I’m not sure if that Snickers ad is trying to show hamfisted-ness or VAW. I’d say that’s terrible advertising right there.

    As for the “plus size model” ad, those men were wolf whistling, drooling and trying to grab her! The ad is perpetuating the idea that women who dress up like that WANT that. I’d say that advertising guy isn’t very good at his job if he can’t see the damaging flipside of that ad. 1. (Sane) women don’t want to be treated like sex objects. 2. Women will like to be known for their work (brains) at their office, not for their bodies. 3. This sort of ad gives men the impression that women really want to be whistled at and grabbed (even raped- which is why men say rape is _always_ the woman’s fault).


  1. Women Out of the Frame – A Review! | HerSpace Sri Lanka - May 5, 2014

    […] Sex Sells?  […]

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