Sex Appeal in Marketing
One of the biggest challenges in marketing communication of any product is differentiating it from the competitors’ product. Developing an innovative advertising strategy which could break out of the advertising clutter and capture the attention of potential consumers is the key of effective marketing communication (Schiffman et al, 2007). Organizations, particularly Western ones, have been using sex-appeal in advertisement as a creative method to build up such effective strategy. However, there is another side to this practice.
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There are many controversies and negative impression around the use of “sex appeal”. Taking two perspectives of marketers and consumers, this essay will suggest some solutions to neutralise the conflicts between the two parties and ensure the long term benefit of the brand. To understand the issue of “sex appeal” in advertisement, this essay will begin by explaining what “sex appeal” is. By definition, sex appeal is the physical characteristic and charms that affect people in a sexual way. In marketing context, sex in advertising is the applying of erotic image and movement in the content of the advertisement.
The degree of this appeal depends on the level of nudity and sexual suggestiveness in an ad. Sex appeal can appear in the form of visual, audio, or verbal information in the advertisement (Liu, Li & Cheng, 2006). According to Lambiase and Reichert (2003), there are 5 types of sexual information that marketers take turn to use in advertising. These includes nudity, sexual behaviour, physical attractiveness, sexual referent and sexual embed. Nudity is the display of different body parts. It is often used in the ad which is related to bikini, muscular arm, lingerie products.
Sexual behaviour refers to sexually suggestive action that is described in the ad, which aims to draw out sexual sensation from the viewers. Physical attractiveness involves the feature of appearance, which can be facial complexity or body beauty. Expressing physical attractiveness is the purpose of using popular and beautiful models in advertisements. Sexual referents refer to image and words that can be the stimulus to trigger sexual thoughts of the viewers. And finally, sexual embed is the forms sexual image that viewers unconsciously perceive (Lambiase & Reichert, 2003).
Sex appeal has been increasingly used over the years to create brand awareness, particularly in European countries and in the US (Liu, Li & Cheng, 2006). The number of sex-involved advertisements has been tripled since 1980 (Clow & Baack, 2007). Some organisations, for example Calvin Klein, use sex as the main theme in every of their advertisements. In the more extreme case, there are many brands that use sex as the stimulus to create attention, despite of the irrelevance between sex and their products (Clow & Baack, 2007).
The increasing in “sex sells” in advertisement nowadays could be submitted to a number of factors. Firstly, the innovation in technology and media industry has driven the need to develop advertisement and increased the number of Ad. “The average consumer will be exposed to approximately 1,500 advertisements a day” (O’Guinn, 2003). This increase in media clutter requires brands to use different, non-mainstream approach in advertising (Liu, Li & Cheng, 2006). Sex appeal is one of such approaches. It has been used more and more when proving its effectiveness.
Secondly, the exposure of public to the sex-related content has been increased over the years through entertainment industry like movies and music; through the use of Internet, search engine and social network. Those constant exposures to sex-image have reduced the degree of criticism that the public initially have on sex-related content in advertisement. Just like Henthorne and LaTour, (1994) state: “As the ethical considerations of society change over time, what is considered appropriate and acceptable in advertising must also change”.
It could be also said that the constant use of sex has reinforced itself and made it more acceptable. Although it has been mentioned above that the increasing familiarity of sex-related contents has reduced the initial skeptical opinion when sex content occurs in public media, particularly in marketing and advertisement, the close relation between sex and moral value is still responsible for much controversies about “sex-sell” issue. Brand managers and consumers do not hold the same opinion about the use of sex appeal in advertisement.
While advertisers often undermine the relationship between sex and ethics, skeptical consumers who are opposed of the practice of using sex appeal are concerned about the bad influence that these sex-related advertisement may have on the community, women and younger generation. These different viewpoints increase the conflict between brand managers and consumer activists who is opposed of “sex-sell” advertisement. The perspective of marketers or brand managers focus more on the benefit that the use of sex appeal in advertisement can bring to the products and on the method that can maximise this benefit.
The essay will also mention the viewpoint of marketers and brand managers on the relationship between sex appeal in advertisement and ethical values as its relevance to the advertisement’s effectiveness. First, it should be recognized that sex in advertisement does “sell”. If that is not the case, the amount of sex-related contents in advertisement would not be as much as today, and organisations would not bother spending time in it (Blair, 2006). However, brand managers and marketers should be awared of the reason why sex appeal can be effective.
The success of sex-appeal in advertisement could be explained by some essential factors. Firstly, sex-appeal uses the biological instinct of human to lure to the advertisement, thus create attention and escape from the media clutter (Shrimp, 2003). Secondly, sex appeal is also an emotional appeal that can change the mood of the viewers and develop positive emotional response, which in turns reinforce the cognitive process (Hoyer & Mcinnis, 2001). Thirdly, the sexual context in the advertisement could be a tool to develop brand image and brand personality.
For example, using attractive models in fashion advertisements may indicate the sexiness of the brand and provoke the viewer’s aspiration for the ideal self image. “Using this brand will make me look sexy just like the model” is what potential customers could think. However, brand managers should also acknowledges that the benefit from sex appeal in advertising does not come without risk. Wrong using of sex appeal could make the advertisement become no value to the audiences, and in some cases create negative impact on the brand image (Clow & Baack, 2007)
Firstly, there should be a relation between communication message and the sexual-related content in the advertisement. If there is not any congruency between the attributes of the product and the sexual-related contents in the advertisement, consumers may feel annoyed by the unnecessary use of sexual information and immediately ignore the remaining part of the ad. Secondly, sexual content may distract the audiences from the process of message argument (the central role) in the elaboration likelihood model (Chitty, Barker & Shimp, 2005).
As the result, consumers may be lured to the advertisement but fail to recollect any characteristics of the product in the ad (Rachert, Heckler & Jackson, 2001). This is the reason why some advertising which utilise sex-appeal can get much attention but does not have any effect on the brand image itself (Blair, 2006). Thirdly, not every culture accepts the occurrence of sex-content in the advertisement. Hattab (2008) conducted a research which tests the responses different groups in various cultures toward the advertisements which contains sexual appeal.
The first focus group contained males from Egypt who have lived abroad for a while or travel in and out of their country. They seemed to enjoy most of the advertisements which involve sex appeal, they thought that these advertisements are creative and attractive; some of the members in the focus group decided to purchase the products in the brand. The other group contains of females who has lived in Egypt their entire life and are raised in a culturally conservative area.
When the sexually-related advertisements were exposed to them, the reactions are often negative. The sex-information in those advertisements is either considered unrelated, overboard, or disgusting. In some cases, this group does not recognise the underlying sex idea in the ad, so they are unaffected by it. At the end, most of the members of the group decided not to purchase the product of the brand. They also would not recommend any of the products to their brothers, sisters and family members. Hattab, 2008) The result of the research suggest that while sex appeal in advertisement can be very effective toward a certain group of target audiences, it can have negative impacts on another group, which can result in bad word-of-mouth. This can damage the reputation of the brand and reduce the number of potential customers the brand can have. As mentioning above, another challenge that the use of sex appeals in advertisement relates to moral and ethical issue. However, in marketers and brand managers perspective, this would have little interference with the rofitability of the brand. In the same research conducted by Hattab (2008), he invited four marketing specialists to perform four in-depth interviews. “They have commented that, their job is to communicate the message of the Ad, to the consumers, regardless the appeal used as long as it fits the product category. Regarding the ethical debate around the use of sex appeal, as long as the appeal applies in a creative way to the product (not misused), they do not face any ethical dilemma”. (Hattab, 2008)
Although the perspective of these four marketers does not represent the whole advertisers and brand managers, it could be possible to assume that brand managers would be very likely to have the same opinion about this issue. There is little incentive to be concerned about ethical issue if sexual-related content adds more value to the advertisement; attracts target market and is not illegal. The viewpoint of consumer activists concentrates more on how the practice of using sex in advertisement violates the value of ethics and morals; and how these violations could create consequences in the long future.
Firstly, for consumers’ perspective, the benefit of advertisement is definitely not the profit of the brand but the provision of clear and concise information of various products to make sure that consumers have reliable knowledge when deciding which brand to purchase. For consumer activists, the deeper purpose of marketing and advertisement is raising quality of life in the society (Vatican, 2008). However, the use of sex in advertisement to exploit human instinct evokes the false need from the audiences thus betrays the credit of the product.
In the viewpoint of consumer activists, such advertisements work against its own ethical purpose. Secondly, the use of sex in advertising tolerated the thought that human body is just a commodity that can be traded for profit. The inner value of human like kindness, modesty or competence is ignored and is replaced just only by the look of the model in front of the camera (Edmiston, 2008). Therefore, for consumer activist’s point of view, sex appeal degrades the noble personalities which distinguishes human from other creatures.
Thirdly, the use of sex appeal in advertisements can be considered harmful to the younger generation of the community. Children and teenagers are the group who is exposed to media the most. However, their mind is not developed enough to determine what is appropriate and inappropriate, thus they are vulnerable to such approach (sex-appeal using) in advertising (Schiffman et al, 2007). For them, the sexual-related content of the advertisements can distort their actual self image and ideal self image, which can lead them to indecent or unhealthy lifestyle.
One example of this could be the effort of adolescent females to make them thinner to match with the image of the figure model they see in advertisement (Zugbiggen, 2007). To summarise the points of customer activist, sex-appeal in advertisement is harmful for community in 2 aspects: economic and culture. Economically, sex-appeal encourages irrational choices of consumers based on their feeling and instinct, instead of using quality and price as the indicators for their buying decision. Culturally, sex-appeal changes the value of human and the aspiration of the young, which can leave serious consequences in the future.
While it should be understood that sex-appeal can be an effective weapon for creating attention for the advertisement and the product, emphasizing the brand personality and targeting consumer; wrong and overused application of sex-appeal may be dangerous to the product. In the ethical aspect of sex appeal in advertisement, my opinion is that although the critics about the violation of sex appeal is right and well justified, it would be unreasonable to remove the use of sex in advertisement and marketing. Society has moved to the point where the old moral values may not fit the new generation anymore.
Attacking the use sex appeal in media is also attacking a major part of today’s culture and lifestyle. On the other hand, marketers should not deny the implication of morals and ethics on the use of sex appeal. Brand managers should be more aware of the influence of ethics to the long-term benefit of the organisations. There are some reasons for this. First, ethical practices have a positive effect on the employees. Employees are more motivated to work if they know that they are serving for the benefit of the community (Schiffman et al, 2007).
Second, social media favours the brand which is considered ethical and attacks on every practices of organisations that is considered unethical. This can be a disadvantage for the brand since social media is one of the most influential reference sources to the consumers. Having acknowledged the relationship between sex-appeal in advertisement and ethics, as well as the influence of these ethical issues may have on the long-term benefit of products; brand managers may want to employ some methods to reduce the ethical-related conflicts between marketers and consumers.
The essay will continue by making some recommendations to neutralise these conflicts. The first recommendation is that marketers should reduce the exposure of sexual-related to the population that is outside of the brand’s target market. Doing so will decrease unnecessary contacts between the advertisement and people who may have negative outlook on the sex content. To be able to control this, brand managers should focus more on the communication channel (the place factor in 4p model). Sexual-stimulated advertisements should not be placed in general communication channel like television, social network, general newspaper, etc.
Instead, they should be placed at more targeted channel, for example magazines that target only a certain groups of viewers. The advertisement could also be placed at the physical location that prevents specific groups like children or woman from entering (ex: bar, night club, etc) The second recommendation is that if is hard to prevent people outside of the brand’s target market to actively search for the sexual-related advertisement, or it is more profitable to use general communication channel for advertising (ex: the Internet), there should be some method of warning about the content of the advertisement.
The warning could be in the form of image, symbol, or verbal text. The final recommendation is that brand managers should not only measure the effect of the sex content in advertisement based on the positive impacts it has on the target market. Managers should also pay attention to the negative critics of the community. Too much controversy is not good for branding strategy as it damage the reputation of the product.
On the other hand, some branding strategy enjoys such controversy, as it create more debates and create a lot attention (take the Marlboro ad with a girl sitting near the car and smoking as an example). However, this essay will considered these practices as unethical and undesired by the community. As many researches have proven, sex is an effective method to break through advertising clutter and capture attention to the brand. However, every advertising practice has both positive and negative aspects.
For marketers and brand managers, it should be known that while sex-appeal is a successful weapon if executing well and targeting to the right audience, it can be counter-productive to the effect of the advertisement when there is too much focus on the sex instead of the communication message or when there is little relation between the sex appeal and the product’s attributes. On the side of consumers and socialists, there are many ethical debates around the use of sex appeal in advertisement, which primarily focus on the economical and cultural harm of the advertising practice.
Brand managers should pay attention to these consumer activists’ opinion as well. Although the ethical aspect of advertisement does not directly damage the profitability of the brand in the short term, it may be dangerous for the brand and the organisation in the longer future. To reduce these ethical conflicts between marketers and consumers, managers should pay attention to the exposure of advertisement’s sexual content to both the target markets and the outside community. References: Blair. C (2006) Sex in advertising. Retrieved from http://findarticles. com Chitty, W. , Barker, N. & Shimp, T. (2007). Integrated Marketing Communications (2nd ed. ) Melbourne, Australia: Cengage Learning Clow. K&Baack (2008). Integrated advertising promotion and marketing communication”3rd edition”: New york, US Edmiston, J (2008). What’s Wrong With Using Sex To Advertise Things? Retrieved from http://www. globalchristians. org/ Heckler, s. e, Jackson, s & Reichert, t. (2001). Sexual appeals in advertising. Journal of advertising, 30(1) Hattab, M. , (2008) The Ethical Dilemma of Advertisements: “The effect of sex appeal and emotional appeal on adolescents” Hoyer, W. D. & MacInnis, D.
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