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Imagine yourself walking down the street; there’s a large billboard with a young woman in lingerie holding food from a fast food restaurant. Do you think it would catch your attention? Would it make you want to eat at that restaurant? What if it was an old man? The phenomenon that sex sells has been a widely researched topic over the past few decades. One of the ways sex has been proven to sell is within advertising. Companies often use advertisements to promote their brand and influence consumers to purchase their products. They use a variety of different ways and different media sources in order to sway consumers towards purchasing their good. Media sources include television advertisements, billboards, print ads, product placement in movies and television shows, as well as many others. Studies show that sex appeal tends to catch one’s attention, which is exactly what companies want. Once they initially catch the attention of someone they are then able to get that person to recognize the product which increases that person’s likelihood of purchasing the product. Someone may also directly attribute the positive feelings of that sex appeal with the product and in turn have positive feelings about the product, also increasing their likelihood of purchasing that product. Due to this, the use of sexual imagery within advertisements has rose from 15 percent to 27 percent since 1983. However, even though sex has been proven to sell, it does have its many downfalls and underlying issues.
Burger King used sex appeal to advertise their seven-inch cheeseburger sandwich called the “Super Seven Incher”. The image is of a young blonde women facing the sandwich with her mouth open. There is a shadow along the right edge of the image, suggesting that there is someone standing in front of her. The way the sandwich is positioned perfectly in line with the woman’s mouth makes it evident that Burger King is giving an allusion to oral sex. The sandwich symbolizes erect male genitalia and the woman seems to be preparing to eat the sandwich while in a position reminiscent to oral sex. Her eyes are wide open and almost look in shock which may be referencing to the size of the sandwich, otherwise seen as the size of the penis. The quote “it’ll blow your mind away” makes the underlying concept easy to understand. A slang term commonly used for oral sex is blowjob, hence why they used the word blow. Also, placed under the price, the quote reads “fill your desire with something long, juicy and flamed grilled with the NEW BK SUPER SEVEN INCHER” with super seven incher being a direct reference to penis size. The next line quotes “Yearn for more after you taste the mind blowing burger that comes with a single beef patty” suggesting that one would receive as much pleasure eating the sandwich as the would engaging in the sexual act.
It was said that “One of the chief functions of an advertisement is to convey an appropriate tone to the product’s targeted user”. Considering this advertisement has a very sexual tone and references a female performing the sexual act on a penis, the targeted user audience is the male population. This ad has been recognized as highly controversial and considered degrading to women. The model pictured actually called a boycott against Burger King because she did not consent to the company’s use of her image. Burger King purchased the stock photo from a third party and used it without the model’s knowledge, making the advertisement even more controversial. The model said in a YouTube video “I believe in sexual expression in art and the media; it’s beautiful and necessary for a healthy society but IT MUST BE CONSENSUAL otherwise it’s RAPE”. Many people responded, agreeing with her. They agreed that since sex is a natural and normal human process it is healthy to display to a certain degree within society but this blatant reference came off as extremely degrading to women and promoted the idea that women are sexual beings existing for the sole purpose of serving men.
The next advertisement was done by Evan Williams, a company that produces and sells Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. The advertisement features two pictures of a female; one of a young woman from the 1950’s and one of a young woman in present time. Both women are most likely aged somewhere in their twenties. The caption on the advertisement reads “The longer you wait, the better it gets.” This being yet another sexual reference within an advertisement. The quote refers to both the bourbon as well as the young women. The advertisement is saying that not only does bourbon get better with age but also the sex appeal of women has gotten better throughout the past several decades. Beauty standards have changed tremendously over the years. In early cinema, the ideal woman was portrayed as very innocent, with large eyes, small lips and tight curled hair. Society believed that women were supposed to always be ladylike and act respectfully. As time progressed on, women came out of their shells more and more and became more independent and less male dominated. The tight curls turned into big, voluptuous hair and the innocence turned into sophistication. Moving through the 20th century the beauty standards changed yet again into more of the American natural beauty. Little makeup was worn, and the ideal woman carried herself with grace. It wasn’t until the late 90’s and early 00’s that makeup and plastic surgery started to emerge into what they have become today. Flawless makeup routines, perfect hair and a perfectly sculpted body have become a must to make it in today’s society. Relating back to the advertisement, the girl on the right is portrayed in modest clothes in a dull and colorless picture. She has that sophisticated old time look and is attractive but not overly sexual. Naturally, a viewer is first drawn to the left image simply due to the fact the as humans we read from left to right but after just a quick glance, the viewer is then drawn to the bright image to the right. The woman on the right is highly sexualized, wearing suggestive clothing covering little of her ideal figure. She stands in a seemingly seductive pose and it is clearly seen that she is in a bedroom with a bed directly behind her. The brand also placed the quote to naturally draw the viewer to the right side. “The longer you wait” is strategically placed in the top left corner and the quote is cut right in the middle of the sentence. “…the better is gets” is then placed in the bottom right corner so the viewer reads the quote through and has already scanned both of the images. Then the attention is drawn to the bottom of the advertisement with the Evan Williams logo and bottle of whiskey has been placed. A quote reads “Aged longer to taste better” which again, references both the bourbon and the women. Due to the comparison the was just made between the women, the viewer is now more likely to believe the statement about aged liquor being better.
The advertisement creates the ethos that Evan Williams is a knowledgeable producer of above average tasting whiskey. The aging concept of foods and beverages is seen to be classy and a common practice in fine dining. Aging was talked about so much throughout the advertisement that it portrays the idea that Evan Williams is a high class producer. But not only has it determined a favorable character for the brand, it has also raised some controversy about beauty standards. An argument was brought up that the Evan Williams brand doesn’t have the right to determine what is considered attractive about women. Supporters of the argument agreed that the brand should not presume that their product is able to be related to the unfair beauty standards of society.
This final company portrayed has become distinctively known for using sex appeal to sell its products. In 1993 Abercrombie and Fitch operated thirty-six stores and brought in $85 million in revenue. They then launched their new sexualized campaign of their image throughout all their sources of advertising. Not even 10 years later in 2002, the company was thriving, operating 491 stores and bringing in $1.35 billion in revenue. The advertisement shows the two young adults with their bodies in a sexual position and the male leaning in to kiss the female. Both portray society’s idea of the ideal body which has made the brand known for targeting young adults and sex crazed teenagers. Young teens are in the process of discovering who they are and will do anything to fit in with the popular crowd. The image suggests to the brand’s customers that wearing the A&F brand will make them feel “young and sexy”, just like the models displayed. Mike Jefferies, the CEO, made a comment about the ethos the brand was trying to create for themselves. He said “We go after the attractive all American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends”. In stores, the largest female size was a 10, which created the brand’s reputation as only being made for thin and attractive females. As seen in the image, the female model directly fits that reputation.
However, recently the brand has decided to put an end to their overly sexualized ads. When teens started to direct their clothing interests toward the cheaper and more hipster style, the brand started to take in less and less revenue. Also in recent times, a lot of controversy has started over female body shaming. With women coming to the realization that they should be happy with who they are, brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch have started to lose the once ever-so-popular “cool kid” crowd. According to Business Insider, the brand is now getting rid of their logos on clothing, toning down the over-sexualized advertising and trying to create a more pleasurable customer experience.
The use of sexual references within advertisement has been proven to be an effective way to sell a product. It draws the attention of the consumer and the sensuality of the advertisement creates a positive feeling for the viewer. However, in recent times, advertisers have started to shift the once subtle references into more racy and inappropriate sexual cues which has created a lot of controversy about the subject. The advertisements above are all examples of how sex can be a successful strategy when promoting a product, but not if the sexual cues are taken too far.
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