Sex Doesn't Sell
Updated: May 11
So Why Do Men Keep Making Sexist, Sexualised Adverts?
You've probably been repeatedly informed that sex sells. It's sold to us as a truism, supposedly explaining why it's acceptable for many advertisers to treat one half of the human race as though their only value lies in being a set of sexually attractive, available body parts.
The only problem is, the truism isn't true. If you're open-minded and rational enough to re-evaluate the myths you've been force-fed, let's have a look at the facts together.
That’s Not Sex It’s well established that sexualised advertising does not sell more product. But let’s also look at the term “sex”. When people say sex sells, they’re not actually talking about sex. Women in soft porn poses revealing flesh, women being dominated by men in a sexual fashion, the representations of women being objectified in adverts — none of these equals sex. They represent women being sexualised in specific ways. Spot the difference.
“In short: sexualization is performance; it’s all about being desirable to others. Sexuality is understanding and connecting to your own desire.”
Oh that’s just semantics, I hear you cry. Sexualising women sells then, if you insist on being pedantic.
Except, it doesn't.
Long ago, I questioned the validity of the claim that looking at women's buttocks, breasts and flesh, that seeing women present themselves as sexually available, was selling more products. It certainly wasn't selling anything to me. By my teens I was already utterly exhausted and demoralised by being forced to view women being objectified in every single public arena, media, print, billboards, on buses, trains, newspapers, magazines. In the public space objectification of women was everywhere.
I would turn away from such ads as quickly as I could, I would avoid where I could purchasing anything from the companies that produced them. But there was still no escape.
I also noticed early on that men were rarely sexualised in such a fashion. And without knowing why it was harmful to females to be portrayed in this way, I knew it was.
It turns out that I was right on both counts.
According to researcher Dr Erin Hatton of the University at Buffalo in New York:
"However, it also found that when it came to women, images have become much more sexualised than those depicting men..."In the 1960s, 11% of men on Rolling Stone covers were sexualised and by the 2000s, this had risen to 17%... However, in the 1960s, 44% of women were sexualised and by the 2000s, this had risen to 83%. Furthermore, in the 2000s, ‘there were 10 times more hypersexualised images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualised images of men than of women'.
And the American Psychological Association found:
"Women and girls are more likely than men and boys to be objectified and sexualized in a variety of media outlets".
This does not herald anything good for women.
In The Real World
I knew instinctively that such portrayals of women decreased our dignity, safety and caused us harm, but I didn't have the language, confidence or the education to speak up about it effectively as a young woman. When I tried to object, I was mocked and told that this was just the way of the world, I'd have to suck it up because money justifies everything and any other position was just naive.
I didn't agree with that statement at all. The dignity, safety and protection of half the human race has always meant a great deal more than whether a car company makes a profit.
But you can't argue with the "that's just the way it is" brigade, particularly if they believe that they have financial success to back their claims.
Except, they don't.
It turns out that I'm by no means the only person who not only doesn't enjoy watching women being commodified but actively turns away from such adverts. And even those who do enjoy women being objectified are not actually more likely to buy your product or support your cause based on the advert in question.
It turns out that arousal related to the dehumanisation of women doesn't translate into support for the product or the cause.
Let's talk about support for ethical causes. If you think the unethical treatment of women can be justified because it will drive more people to support an otherwise ethical cause, think again.
Peer-reviewed research by the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne found that exposure to dehumanising images of women actually reduced any intent or behaviour helpful to the cause.
"With exposure to sexualized advertising reducing both intentions to support the ethical organization and behaviour helpful to the animal-rights cause. In both studies, conducted in different nations (Australia, the United States), and with different demographics (male undergraduates, mixed-gender community sample), consistent evidence of mediation by dehumanization indicated that the dehumanization of the women in the sexualized advertisements is central to explaining these findings."
Well, that's the ethical causes ruled out. But after all, sexualising women still translates to greater product uptake. And we must all worship at the feet of Mammon.
Except, it doesn't.
Researchers from the University of Illinois, Ball State University and the University of California-Davis examined the meta-analysis of 78 peer-reviewed advertising studies from 1969 to 2017 and firmly concluded:
"The sexualized ads also didn’t drive more people to buy things, or people to buy more things—the key goals of advertising—than the ones that didn’t."
“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” the report’s lead author, John Wirtz, told the University of Illinois. “This assumption that sex sells—well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”
This is further supported by findings from Brad J. Bushman, PhD and Robert B. Lull, PhD of The Ohio State University who conducted a meta-analysis of 53 studies to evaluate how effective it is to include violent and sexual content in advertising. They studied television, movies, video games and print advertising.
“We found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness,” said Brad J. Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, and a co-author on the study, which appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin®. “In general, we found violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decreased advertising effectiveness.”
"Brands advertised during commercial breaks in media with sexual overtones were viewed less favorably than those advertised in media with no sexual content, but there was little difference in viewers’ brand memory or intention to buy. "
And even for those who weren't distressed by the advertising, it had the effect of making them forget about the products being advertised. According to Robert B. Lull, PhD:
"People pay more attention to the violence and the sex surrounding ads, both in programs and the ads themselves, than to the actual products being advertised. Consequently, memory, attitudes and buying intentions all decrease."
So, the ads were, overall, disliked more than the non-sexual adverts. And even when people weren't disgusted by the advertising, the ads still didn't increase revenue.
It was well worth objectifying those women, wasn't it?
Real World Harms, No Gains
Not only does objectifying women not sell more products, not only does it not gain support for your cause, not only can it actually have a negative effect on sales and support: what sexualised advertising does do really well is increase harmful, negative beliefs and behaviours.
According to Psychology Today:
"Sexualised portrayals of women have been found to legitimise or exacerbate violence against women and girls, as well as sexual harassment and anti-women attitudes among men and boys."
Amongst other negative outcomes, media sexualisation of the female form is associated with:
The incidence of anorexia nervosa among 10-to 19-year-old girls during a 50-year period found that it paralleled changes in fashion and idealized body image.
Young women who have greater body dissatisfaction have earlier onset of smoking cigarettes.
Self-objectification has been correlated with decreased sexual health among adolescent girls (measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness).
And studies by FEMINC in conjunction with Google found that:
'The findings of Survey 1 (Sexism in male and female users) found that in men, exposure to a single ad with sexualized imagery (considered both “slightly inappropriate” and “inappropriate” images) significantly increased benevolent sexism in men."
"The psychological literature currently indicates that objectification and sexualization of women in the media can have wide-ranging effects, from increasing the rates of eating disorders, increasing the likelihood of sexual harassment, or affecting women’s performance and evaluation in the workplace. Benevolent sexism in men negatively impacts women’s success in the workplace."
My Instincts Were Correct
What I always knew on a basic, bone-deep level to be true, has turned out to be true. Objectifying women doesn't sell more products, and it does cause harm to the female sex.
And what's more, we've had proof of this for many years.
So why does the advertising industry, mostly run by men, continue to promote objectification, dehumanisation and sexualisation of women in their advertisements?
Why do they keep doing it?
Well according to The Department of Journalism at Ball State University:
"additional analysis showed that males evaluate ads with sexual appeals significantly more positively than females... we found a small significant negative effect on brand attitude, but no effect on purchase intention.
It turns out that some men really enjoy ads that objectify women, although that doesn't translate to more purchases or brand support. And women, unsurprisingly, overall dislike ads that objectify women.
And there you have it.
In Conclusion: Sexualised advertising has been proven to have a negative or neutral effect on product purchasing, and it doesn't increase support for campaigns. It causes actual, verifiable and well documented harm to females.
But we keep seeing it anyway.
Because some men like it.
And really, isn't that what you always suspected all along?
NB: It's clear that I am discussing the sexualisation of females by the advertising industry who use women's bodies to promote products or campaigns. I am not discussing the cases where women have objectified and sexualised themselves, then sold themselves as a product. Sadly, that does seem to work in some cases. Just take a look at the Kardashians (or don't, I try not to).
Alison Tennent, Queensland, Australia, May 2021
Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.
Wishing you, fellow travellers, fair winds and a following sea: