There’s she goes, walking down the street in her black-clad body-tight summer dress, strutting her stuff, waving her hair in the mild breeze, He’s ogling her from a near distance and must admit that she looks hot, very hot. Then, before she knows it, he jumps on her, draping her robe over the floor.

This image of a boy groping a girl comes from an ad of Calvin Klein shortly before the ‘me too’ movement emerged, which makes us wonder. In this crazy, ultra-high-speed digital world, we’re able to discover nudity, pornography, semi-naked celebrities with the click of a few buttons.

The majority of people display the most popular, sexually-desirable version of themselves on social media, where it seems that sex has a fundamental role; on average men think about sex nineteen times per day, whereas women do this ten times per day. This makes sex a strategy for advertising. Ads targeted on young adults are 65% more likely to contain provocatively dressed models and display 128% more sexual subliminal activities than those for more mature adults.

Digital advertising has allowed marketers to target their audience down to nitty-gritty niche levels and elevated the importance of relatability. What might be offensive and banned on TV may be acceptable as digital, viral-like content, encouraging advertisers to create sexy adverts for brands which want to be seen as daring, rebellious and risqué.

Using sex to sell everything from alcohol to banking services has increased over the years. In the 40s and 50s products merely aimed at men featured in cigarette ads in which role-models were sitting in cars, in armchairs ready to share satisfaction. These messages were euphemistic and played on sexual satisfaction. Fifteen percent of ads have used sex as a unique selling point; however, this percentage has gone up to 27 percent in recent years. Alcohol, entertainment and beauty ads are responsible for much of this increase, which means that sex should be primarily used to sell low-risk products or stimulate impulse purchases. Take our infamous Calvin Klein ad, the brand has continued to grow its annual revenue from $1 billion in 2005 to a staggering 8.2 billion, according to their 2016 annual report.

Market researchers have discovered that when media content and ad content are congruent, like a sex comedy which goes together with a sexually suggestive ad, recollection improves and buying intentions may increase; nevertheless, even though it is not hard to find straight-up porn on some of the most popular platforms like Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr, significant effects of the sexual media in themselves on memory or buying intentions have not been reported. Consequently, (digital) advertising aligned with sexual content seems to be an obscure story.

About the archetypes

– Sexual advertisements tend to reinforce male and females stereotypes.

– Objectification forms a major issue. We must stop treating women’s bodies as objects that can be used and abused.

– Sex does sell, the numbers are there to prove it – but mostly to a certain demographic of men. Nevertheless, the fact that a book like Fifty Shades of Greyhas sold over 125 million copies around the world, for women, sexual satisfaction is usually ignored or second place to the man.

About the digital media

Facebook and Instagram’s advertising policy requires there to be no adult content in your ads. This includes nudity even if implied, there’s a zero-tolerance policy for “images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chest, even if not explicitly sexual in nature.” While on AdWords and their Ad Network sexual content cannot be used to promote on app ads and app extensions and Google will not track “sensitive interest categories”.

On the flipside, celebrity influencers have seemed to find a loophole in the sexual content arena. Sexual, organic content in the age of digital marketing is alive and kicking, but you’re not going to run a pay-per-click campaign with it.

As taboos about online porn break down and new generations of singles consider online dating, marketers have spotted an opportunity to reach a specific consumer and retain their attention, all at a low cost, while being spot-on. A cheeky Diesel, with a reputation for shaking things up, and no ‘family-brand’ image to uphold, has been running their campaign on Pornhub and Grindr. The brand’s logic was clear: Pornhub received more than 21bn visits worldwide last year and it is much cheaper than advertising on Google, Twitter or Facebook. How sexy is that?

The takeaway

Overall, sex appeal has a shady effect on people’s buying intention. However, people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but this effect doesn’t extend to the brands that are featured in the ads. On average men, unsurprisingly, like sexualized ads while women simply do not.