Strange Bedfellows

Posted March 8, 2017, under Ad Absurdum

A widely known aphorism about advertising is that “sex sells.” It’s one of those “everyone knows” things, and has been since pretty much the dawn of advertising.

This is literally the earliest known advertisement, complete with a jingle, and it’s for a brothel.

It’s understandable. Sex is a basic human need, and we are kind of hardwired to be attentive to “opportunities.” But here’s the thing: Studies have shown that using sex in marketing really only works when it’s relevant to the product.

This is a condom ad, demonstrating the importance of being conscientious while having sex in public.

We’re not here to talk about those.

Oil and Water

Like sex itself, this is a dicey topic. What is acceptable to one person will be verboten to another. Some would prefer there be no sex in advertising of any kind, while others think nothing of borderline pornographic billboards. “Acceptable sexuality” really depends on culture, era, and context.

But there is no context in which bread is sexy.

Yes, we are aware that there’s literally nothing that someone doesn’t associate with sex. Let’s try to keep this Safe For Work, folks.

In 1960s America, this was not such an unreasonable ad. The most likely occupation for women at the time was homemaker, so advertising to women meant positioning your products with that. But the “make him a sammich” line would definitely not fly today — and we are still talking about an ad campaign that says, “Our bread will get you laid.”

Square Peg, Round Hole

It’s almost logical: If men are your target demographic, show attractive, scantily clad women! It’s a hugely widespread, long-standing tactic. But those same studies we mentioned? They found that sex (as well as violence) would be more likely to overshadow the product. People will forget what you’re advertising, in favor of the cheesecake.

This is a lesson that apparently needs to be learned by tire companies.

This was the tamest example we could find.

Look, we’re not mystified by how this is meant to work. We already feel appreciative toward Toyo Tires. But we had to double-check who they were to write that sentence. Sure, tires are made of rubber (rimshot), but they are not easily associated with sex appeal.

Pushing the Limits

Carl’s Jr. is the poster child for gratuitous sexuality in their ads. Their notoriety is such you probably thought of them as soon as you knew what the article was about.

We live in a world where ads for condoms are more tasteful than ads for hamburgers.

While the ads are definitely tongue in cheek, almost self-parodic, they are also just short of being softcore pornography. While some folks are completely fine with that, there are definitely people who found the long-running campaign (now in its 12th year!) gross enough to turn them off from ever going to Carl’s Jr.

That’s if the burgers themselves hadn’t already done that.

Crossing the Line

Similar to Carl’s Jr. in notoriety is PETA. The animal-rights organization attempts to justify the nudity with its slogan, “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.” That’s fair enough – clever, even. But it doesn’t really excuse the snuff-porn vibe of some of their other ads and stunts.

It definitely doesn’t excuse this painfully inept Photoshop work.

PETA’s campaigns aren’t quite as weird, however, as the one from British organization FishLove. Their whole deal is sustainable fishing, which is surely a worthwhile cause. They have chosen to promote that cause this way:

We know they’re called “FishLove” but this is taking things to, shall we say, “nontraditional places.”

Real Talk

Nudity and sexuality have always been well-represented in the arts, and are a huge part of life. And advertising will always use all the tools at its disposal. But “sex sells” isn’t merely simplistic and inaccurate, it doesn’t apply to everything. This isn’t “moralizing”; some things simply aren’t sexual and don’t benefit from sexual associations.


Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web — without using sex to sell your product or service.