the ethical dilemma of sexual appeal in advertising

The old adage “sex-sells” is an assumption that has caused an ethical dilemma in a fast moving world filled with media consumers and advertising. The use of sexual appeal in advertising has increased dramatically in the United States within the last decade. Its misuse and pervasiveness surround us every day and elicit powerful emotions by individuals of all ages, both male and female. Sex in advertising has been around for years and continues to drive media messages in society simply because it works. Ads with sexual appeal are more attention getting, arousing and memorable.

A single male college student is far more likely to pay attention to an advertisement that carries a “sexy” message in it than one that does not. The purpose of this paper is to respond to the question, “how ethical is it for advertisements to use sexual appeal as a means of marketing and selling consumer goods? ” In this research paper, I will discuss the ethical dilemma of sexual appeal in advertising and argue that sex should not sell. Before introducing any type of appeal into an advertisement, it is important to know and evaluate the audience that will be receiving the message.

This is the job of the advertising agent. Advertising has a way of drawing people in to entice feelings and motivate them to action and even changes in behavior. Using various approaches of emotion including fear, humor, rationality, scarcity and sex appeal, advertisers ensure that their targeted audience receives their message in the most effective way possible. Whether or not the consumer is aware of the advertiser’s motive, it is sufficient to say that the advertiser keys in on the two basic principles: what they want to say and who they want to say it to.

After a target audience has been identified, the agency will decide on what ads to execute. Research has shown that although sexual appeals in brand advertising are attention getting, they are not as effective because they do not always motivate the consumer to take action but instead only entertain. (Reichert, Heckler, and Jackson, 2001, p. 18). Research Sex in advertising appeals to teens and grabs their attention (or at least the attention of their hormones) and leads them to a social desire to feel beautiful, sensuous and attractive.

Of all the mediums available to feature sexual appeal, advertisers focus mostly on print ads found in magazines and on billboards. Brand campaigns like Calvin and Klein Jeans are recognized by their high level of sensuality as teens pose semi-nude in provocative positions; often wearing only jeans. To the eye of the advertiser, a campaign like this might be perceived as a successful photo shoot of high artistic value and ultimately a success. On the other hand, a conservative stay at home mother might look at the ad and feel invaded, harassed and objectified.

As a mother, it would only be natural instinct to guard those feelings from her own children. From a consumer perspective, teenagers are the most attractive market segment for advertisers. Between the ages of 13 and 17, teenagers live off of “disposable incomes” that are generated by their parents and part time jobs. With a small but continuous cash flow and an “I answer to no one” attitude, they become the perfect target for media and advertising influence. On average, teens spend about $100 a week on optional products that aren’t needs (Zolo, 2004).

Teens are powerful allies to advertisers because not only are they highly susceptible to being influenced, but they also influence their friends and parents into making purchases. This results in billions of dollars spent each year on advertising towards this market segment (Linn, 2004). During the developmental stages of self-discovery, self esteem and puberty, teenagers develop brand loyalty which defines who they are. To my father, 501 brand jeans will always be “cool” 501 jeans because of the brand loyalty he developed as a high school student.

My dad’s decision to purchase jeans as a teenager has led him to a “cradle to grave” loyalty to 501 brand jeans as an adult. A company’s future earnings are dramatically impacted by teenagers who like my dad, formed brand opinions at an early age and later “grow up in the brand. ” In a book written by James McNeal, he said “if you can buy a 24 year old, you can get all his friends absolutely free. ” Advertising is a profession that reflects and molds cultural values and standards in more ways than we may think.

Because of advertising’s ability to affect the way people view themselves in the world that surrounds them, it is one of the business functions that receives the most ethical scrutiny. Advertising messages create a lot of debatable ethical issues because the public believes that advertisements affect the way people see themselves and can crucially affect their actions. In 2011, the Journal of Business Ethics summarized reasons why people complain about advertising.

The reasons included teaching the idea that happiness comes from possessing valuable things, creating false values in society, causing individuals to be more easily persuaded by distracting them through entertainment and by the use of puffery or exaggerations to make their products appear better than they are. Another reason people complained about advertising was the fact that it is too preoccupied with exploiting sexuality and the human body to persuade people. The question to be asked is where and what are the ethical guidelines for sexually appealing advertisements?

Where is the line between what an ad can or cannot do, show or say? To find the answer to this question, we have to understand morals. Morals are the beliefs that people use as a standard to judge what is right or what is wrong. Every day we make choices and use our own individual ability to judge for ourselves what is ethical or not using our own experiences, morals and points of view. Sadly, in the world we live in today, morals aren’t enough. Moral relativism becomes a deal breaker because individuals choose their own “right and wrong” and build their own “standard scale” to fit their needs.

Ethics go one step further than morals by serving as guidelines for organizations like ad agencies. Ethics create boundaries regarding what is acceptable and what is not. Attractive models on television can portray suggestiveness and nudity are standard elements of TV commercials tto target appeal and emotion. Commercial producers will even go as far as including suggestive music or audio files that portray sexuality. Sexual appeal in TV commercials involve a much higher amount of ethical controversy than print ads because of the high number of individuals that watch the commercials.

One of the biggest ethical issues is the implication of advertising to children. In order to protect children from commercial exploitation, watchdog groups have formed to minimize the damage. Some of the organizations are the Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC), American Academmy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: The Television and Media Committee (AACAP) and the National Institute for Media and the Family (NIMF) to name a few. To legislators, the topic of sexual appeal in advertising is considered to be a “soft” ethical issue in comparison to “hard” issues like telling the truth and verifying claims.

Sexual content in advertisements is a difficult issue because it is hard to define. The guidelines for advertising are simple, as long as the sexual appeals present the product in a creative way without misuse then their chances of facing any ethical dilemmas are minimal. Their job is to communicate the message to the right audience and fit the specific product category. After meeting that criteria, then the advertiser is free to express any reflective, personal, subjective, cultural or historical values in conjoint with the first amendment which guarantees free commercial speech.

Advertisers might argue that it is only by including controversial or sexually appealing ads that they can stand out through clutter in the media. Ads that spark controversy are more likely to be memorable and lasting in the mind of a consumer. For example, in the AXE body spray ad campaign, images depict men pointing at women’s cleavage and inner thighs with the message for men, “To get what you want. ” The creators of this campaign add brand remembrance to AXE by including strong sexual appeal that many small children might not understand.

After presenting the ad in an attractive manner, it is up to the consumer to go out and purchase the product based on the emotions felt. A young female teenager watching a victoria’s secret commercial might be led to believe that she will look as beautiful and sexy as models on the commercials, if she were to wear Victoria’s Secret. It’s obvious that that type of underwear is not going to look that good on just anyone, yet from a first look a young vulnerable teenager might feel that way. At the end of the day, the advertisers ultimate goal is to sell.

From an alternative standpoint, the consumer is passive and seeks to be presented quality products by means of entertainment and positive feelings. Even though most ads with suggestive themes do grab consumer attention, most ads that carry over the top sexual themes tend to result in a negative attitude towards the brand and the ad. Ads with little or no sexual appeal actually increase the odds of a consumer purchase (Walker 1999). In order to solve the ethical dilemma of regulating the amount and level of sexual appeal in advertising, several courses of action needs to be taken.

Many outside and independent parties have tried to attack the solution, but I would like to propose three solutions of my own: 1) Government should place more specific rules and regulations on ads in order to moderate the intensity of sexually explicit ads. The regulations mentioned previously, that an ad’s purpose should be to sell a product within a specific category in a creative way. Not only should governments be responsible for regulating content but brand owners should become more adept at policing themselves as well. ) Nations should be considerate of the effects of global marketing and recognize that because of globalization, the world is becoming one flat platform where ideas are now shared cross-culturally. When placing ads, agencies should be aware of the norms and cultures of other countries and respect areas of issue that could offend a country with different ethics and values. In addition, agencies can improve research on the product and the consumers in order to understand the values held in other nations.

The more research is focused on the brand itself, the more marketers will be able to key in on the right appeal to use in ads for the brand. With better research, advertisers will find a better way to convince and sell their product instead of resorting to sexual appeal. Doing this will create stronger consumer-brand relationships than by simply enticing the consumer with suggestive images. 3) Parents need to understand their role as guardians of the content their children are exposed to. Control should not only come from outside government and brand owners, but also from inside within the home.

Since most teenagers watch programs that are intended for adult age groups, they are exposed to lots of advertising messages that have suggestive content. A careful and loving parent will provide other activities for their child to do so that they are not exposed to indecent content. Nowadays, parents and network programs should be cautious of inappropriate content popping up on the TV at any age. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl is a classic example of this new weariness media companies might feel. Good communication about the reality of ads is another beneficial solution.

The more a child understands the vanity and superfluity of an “eye catching ad,” the sooner the child will be able to make correct ethical decisions for himself in the future. Although the public perception of advertising is low and the prevalence of sex in the media is at an all time high, advertising businesses argue that they are not responsible for dictating cultural and societal values, but instead only reflect the values that are currently out there. Teens that watch networks like Nickelodeon and MTV are exposed to ideas that attack ethical values just as much as any suggestive advertisement would.

Advertisers who justify this “cultural reflection” theory would not have to worry about being ruled as wrong or unethical. Because of complaints from consumer rights organizations, many brand owners have been forced to establish age limit buying policies, as was the case of Abercrombie and Fitch. Abercrombie and Fitch established itself as an outfit store with a sex appeal trend. By doing this, young people are drawn into the stores and can even subscribe to a teen “magalog” magazine which carries headlines like, “sex has nothing to do with sin” and “a friend is someone I can betray with love. Because of the nature of the content in their store, there is a minimum age requirement for all purchases from Abercrombie and Fitch. Agencies hold the majority of the ethical responsibility for the campaigns they deliver, but it is ultimately left to the client to decide whether or not they will follow ethical guidelines. The advertising agency should act as the “older brother” to the client and lead them in a responsible, ethical direction. It should be the responsibility of the advertising agency to determine whether or not the client’s work is too appealing and appropriate and help their client avoid negative publicity.

They should advocate ethical behavior knowing that it is the good, genuine and noble way of practicing a business. The best way to handle stressful ethical situations in the future is to develop a foundation of good practices now. The sooner the world can create a gap between the fine lines of what is ethical and what is not, the clearer decisions will be when it comes to making an ad. In conclusion, it is obvious that over time sexual appeals will continue to be found in advertising.

Too much exposure to sexual content will lead to a desensitized generation of individuals who see it as “ordinary. ” There is nothing ordinary about exploiting a human body created by a Heavenly Father. As this pattern continues, there will be more negative effects on teenagers and their relationships to their parents. We will see a continual digress in the public perception of the advertising business. Target audiences are becoming younger and younger and more vulnerable. Companies are discovering even more creative ways to reach them through online games, websites and their cell phones.

The long term affects of avoiding ethical practices in the advertising business should be very concerning if agencies avoid seeking the altruistic good for all nations.


Abercrombie & Fitch Advertisement (n. d. ). Retrieved March 16, 2004, from Abercrombie & Fitch Website: www. abercrombie. com. AXE Nun (2004). Collections: AXE Effect. May Abd El Latif El Hattab, “The effect of sex appeal and emotional appeal on adolescents” German University in Cairo, June 4th 2008 La Tour, M. & Henthorne, T. (1994, September).

Ethical judgments of sexual appeals in print advertising. [Electronic version]. Journal of Advertising, 23(3), 87-91. Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Children. New York: The New Press, 2004. Kilbourne, Jean. Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Zollo, Peter. Getting Wiser to Teens: More Insights into Marketing to Teenagers. Ithica, NY: New Strategist Publications, 2004. McNeal, James U. Children as Consumers: Insights and Implications, 1987

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