Newsflash: sex sells behaviours – not the product!

I launched my ‘What Does Sex Sell?’ show at Edinburgh Fringe in August 2018 to find out what the public thought about the continuous use of sexualised images in everyday marketed products. It was a sold-out event. One which provided a wealth of ideas to explore on further as a researcher.

As part of my demonstration at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (CoDI) show, it consisted of a comical visual interpretation of the insidious [ooh-err] sexual innuendoes that are perpetuated in contemporary advertising. Then, I show the more evasive representations of sexualisation. These contain images that cannot be justified through comical interpretation as they depict heinous imagery of gang-rape and other forms of sexual abuse. You are probably asking yourself: ‘Do these images really exist in contemporary ads?’


The notion that ‘sex sells’ has been used by marketers as an excuse to sexualise anything and everything. From yoghurt ads to fast food, perfume to shampoo, these images are permeated everywhere. They are ubiquitous. We live in a heightened sexualised consumer culture where sex is used to not just advertise products, but in music videos, social media posts, and in TV reality shows such as Geordie Shore, Love Island and Naked Attraction. Sex is used as a symbolic tool to sell a product. It does not sell the product, it sells the behaviours of which it advertises inadvertently.

To demonstrate my ‘dangerous idea’ let’s go back to advertising itself. Advertising is ubiquitous – it is everywhere (from when you read your morning paper, to the billboards at the bus stop, to the ads you see on your daily commute). Before the surge of social media, it was reported we see (consciously and subconsciously) approximately 2,500-5,000 advertisements per day. But consider the number of online-based ads we see per day (depending on what websites we use or social media accounts we possess). The assumed number is unaccountable. Take into consideration the mammoth use of sexualisation in mainstream advertising – you can easily draw similar conclusions.

My colleague Dr Elaine Thomson in her Feminism and Marketing Ethics class said:

“If a Martian entered western consumer society and saw these images in mass media, such as magazines print ads and social media – what conclusions would they draw about us, about our values, about the relations between men and women? They would assume we are sex-obsessed, that men are domineering beings, and women are submissive.”

In my show I demonstrate visual and performative examples of the ways in which women are portrayed as sexual beings in contemporary advertising. Why women? If you google ‘sexualised advertising’ (I encourage you to do this!), the vast majority you will see is women sexualised in a submissive way. This is not to say that men are not sexualised, they are sexualised as productive, domineering [in control] sexual beings; whereas women are portrayed as decorative and submissive. I focus on the sexualisation of women in ads because I believe it is these portrayals which have a profound impact on the ways in which women are treated in society. For example, the 2007 Dolce and Gabbanna ad [see below] was notoriously taken down by the Advertising Standards Authority (2017) for visualising a gang-rape scene. When we see repetitive images of women in submissive ‘ask for it’ portrayals in advertising (whilst being vultured over by men in the following Dolce & Gabbanna ad), you can see the resemblance to social opinions towards women’s sexuality. In light of the #metoo movement (while it received appraisal for voicing women’s experiences of sexual abuse and misconduct), there were contentions questioning women’s ‘agency’ (choice in these scenarios).

In these ads (like Dolce and Gabbanna), it could [I say, very lightly] be argued that it was a ‘woman’s choice’ to be put into that position – at least that is society’s perspective, given the multitude of images that suggest that women ‘give-in’ to these sexual circumstances. Thus if these repetitive images of women in ads are anything to go by, it sells that women are merely just ‘submissive, decorative objects’.

Do you agree or disagree by that statement? Nevertheless, come along anyway, you will be educated regardless of your perspective. You can find out more about my show on the 26th of March at the Crescent Arts Centre, and book tickets, here.

Kat Rezai is a Lecturer in Marketing at Edinburgh Napier University.

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