Does sex sell – and should you use it to grow sales?

And would you want to profit from it anyway? We look at the relationship between sex and advertising

Let’s get one thing straight. Sex attracts – always has, probably always will.

But it doesn’t work for everything and doesn’t always sell. And if you get it wrong, it could seriously harm your business.

So when is sexing-up acceptable? Is it justified using the oldest ploy in marketing to sell an essentially dull, but functional, bit of software or a distinctly unsexy insurance policy? Is it the only way you’re going to get anyone pausing long enough to read your ad or tempted to forward your viral email? Does anything go? Whether it’s overt images with titillating flashes of flesh, clever word plays, mere expressions or suggestive body language, or the none-too-subtle use of phallic objects – sex is everywhere and divides as much as conquers.

Rick Blears, a former creative director for a 600-strong, £60m turnover advertising group and now of RMSPR, is adamant that it should be avoided like the plague. “Advertising’s all about finding succinct, original, exciting and reassuring ways to dramatise a product’s USP. What’s a predictable, monotonous and tasteless sexual inference got to do with any of that?”

Only last month Sainsbury’s agreed to place a protective cover over the lads’ mags it has on sale, leaving just the titles visible. This was a direct response to some customers registering discomfort about children being subjected to near-naked, buxom women.

The point is, if you take the approach that sex sells, that’s exactly what you risk – and can you afford to alienate up to half your customer-base or create the view that you’ve cheapened your brand for the sake of the odd double-take?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Gossard Wonderbra ‘Hello Boys’ campaign is a great example of getting it right. Its billboards stopped traffic and aroused the attentions of men, but it put women in the driving seat. Seven units were sold every second in its 1994 heyday – 1.6m in that year alone. The classic Cadbury’s Flake TV ads are perhaps an even better example here, where suggestion was everything, despite chocolate bars, unlike bras, having no ostensible link to sex.

What constitutes using sex?

The landscape for sex in advertising has changed. Sexual imagery and implied sexuality defined ads throughout the 1990s, reversing Mary Whitehouse’s puritanical efforts. But consumers are arguably more sophisticated now with higher expectations of the estimated 20,000 messages they face everyday.

Businesses, too, are thinking harder, by and large. But there are always exceptions, those who can’t resist a cheap saucy gag or a gratuitous bit of flesh. If your target audience is 18-24-year-old males you may decide it’s worth it. “It’s a fact of life that a sexual image will attract attention,” says Mike Perls, managing director of marketing and PR agency MC2 and national executive director of the PR Forum. “However, thinking a girl with a chest will sell anything to blokes is a common mistake. The audience is more aware than many give them credit for.”

His company boasts Deloitte, Grant Thornton and Credit Suisse among its clients, and while the agency has used sex or sexuality for numerous campaigns, there are clients where any such element is a non-starter.

Tricia Weener, managing director of Intelligent Marketing, which names Diageo among its clients, says companies have become more responsible across the board as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies. This is particularly true of the drinks industry, which has introduced its own code to ensure no link is made between alcohol and sexual prowess. The approach may not have filtered down to the smaller and mid-size businesses like yours where CSR policies are often less defined, but it’s certainly worth noting if you aspire to reach the higher echelons and stay on the right side of acceptability.

What does it add to campaigns?

As the Gossard example illustrated, sexy stop-you-dead-in-the-street ads can make a tangible mark on your sales and bottom line.

Club 18-30 was more than happy to be typecast, running with lines such as ‘Beaver Espana’, ‘Laying more than bricks’ and ‘Wake up at the Crack of Dawn’ for its salivating target market. Its adverts were hugely successful at the time, but director of creative ad agency Cuba, which specialises in campaigns for small and mid-size businesses, says 10 years on its not been able to shake its cheap image in a more sophisticated travel arena.

Pot Noodle is another that sailed close to the wind but ultimately got the results, successfully combining humour with sex. It achieved notoriety for some outrageous, but ironic, advertising campaigns, acknowledging through association with grubby sex that consumers feel ‘dirty’ for spurning traditional food for something manufactured and artificial, but ultimately irresistible. Its ‘Slag of All Snacks’ campaign prompted complaints, but the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that it would not cause serious or widespread offence.

Viral marketing, where humour, sex or violence – or all three – are almost prerequisites, is somewhat easier to measure. “We gauge success on the number of people it gets passed on to,” says Louis Halpern, CEO of digital marketing agency Halpern Cowell. “A campaign that’s good will have a viral factor of three. A great one will be 27.”

Agent Provocateur’s founder Serena Rees sanctioned a viral campaign using Kylie Minogue riding a bucking bronco wearing the company’s underwear. At the end of the scene, Kylie asked all the men in the audience to stand, before delivering the mocking closing line, ‘thought not’. It was one of the most successful viral campaigns ever and added millions to the bottom line.

Halpern’s agency was recently behind a viral campaign for the hotel chain Malmaison,, which features a smart-yet-buxom dominatrix behind a desk provocatively asking questions about the viewer’s sexual proclivities. Mailed to 20,000 individuals with high disposable incomes, it’s now been opened by more than 200,000. As a brand awareness exercise it has undeniably worked. How many are converted into customers will be the acid test. Halpern estimates that sex is an element of 60-70% of campaigns for clients. “It’s not because we sit there with dirty minds; it’s because it works.”

How does it detract from business?

But for every business it works for there is at least another where it has flopped. Perls worked on a direct mail campaign for an AIM-listed computer back-up company targeting IT managers. The managing director had opted to produce cards featuring a naked woman pictured from behind with the slogan ‘have you backed-up?’. A frontal picture of the woman ran with a strip across her breasts, which read, ‘Are you protecting your assets?’.

The rather unimaginative concept was compounded by the MD’s decision to use a family friend to model and a poor photographer. “The whole thing was unattractive,” says Perls. Nevertheless the MD went with it, produced it and printed 10,000 of the cards.

It was at that point MC2 became involved. “We forbade the company from sending them out. Not only was it poorly produced, but it was entirely inappropriate.” His argument was the target market are technical by nature. “Some people read visually, but our thought was they were dominant introverts who react to facts and figures.” The messages here are if you decide to go for it, get it done properly, and know your audience and how they respond before you get as far as producing a campaign.

Another business, in the insurance trade, wanted to draw attention at an industry conference. Creatively, it decided to offer head massages. But to publicise the fact, it sent a horde of promo models wearing T-shirts adorned with the query ‘can we give you head?’, while the missing word ‘massages’ was on the back for the disbelieving delegates who couldn’t take their eyes from the spectacle as the women sauntered by. As if that wasn’t sufficient, the models dispensed condoms with the company’s logo on cases and a witty line about ‘protecting your health’.

“I’ve never found a client more delighted with themselves,” says an agency director who worked on subsequent campaigns for the company and chose to remain anonymous. “They assessed its effectiveness from the footfall of people visiting the stand – which was significantly up from the previous year. Personally, though, I think it cheapened the brand.” It also had only the slightest link to insurance.

Weener agrees: “If it’s not relevant then it’s completely unacceptable.” She too had come across a finance company using women in a derogatory way, which was slammed for inappropriate behaviour and received considerable negative PR, including coverage in a newspaper. “In the long run that will have had a negative effect on the business.”

And don’t think that just because you increase sales it’s worked. Weener’s Intelligent Marketing managed to increase sales by around 4% for one client by targeting a female audience, but she regrets the campaign. “In hindsight it was irresponsible and we pushed it too far with the sexual wording. We could have achieved the same effect with more effective wording.” So before you devise a sexy plan ask yourself whether it’ll cheapen your product or service, whether it’ll turn off as many customers as it turns on, and how to avoid the obvious.

Matching campaigns to growth

Equally, if your business is at a key stage of growth or increasing its public profile, do you want everyone to associate you with sex? One campaign Perls’ team formulated for Phones4U aimed to promote the mobile phone company’s search for the nation’s next top comedian. The 16-24 age group was targeted with a national roadshow encouraging young wannabe comics to get up and tell a joke. MC2 decided to run an ad campaign in a number of key publications, including the Daily Star, FHM, Zoo and Nuts.

“For that group, sex is very important,” he says. “If you’ve got something visual, it gets attention.” Hooking it around telling the ‘sexiest’ joke, the agency used a top photographer and top model and was good to go. The timing was wrong though, with John Caudwell’s company announcing a strategic review of the group. “Understandably, they didn’t want anything that could be seen to cheapen the brand and had to pull it.” MC2 swallowed the costs and learnt the lesson that taking in the bigger picture is critical. Use sex when the eyes of shareholders and/or customers are on you and any negative response could be amplified.

The same goes for fast growing companies that move up a tier. Another professional services business Perls came across in the North West got a reputation for using sexual imagery and events, such as agency girls waitressing at its functions and sexual innuendo in ads and cards. By the time it was operating in the mid-tier rather than fighting for attention as a small firm its credibility had been shot to pieces and was associated with cheap, tacky promotions. Do you want skeletons in your cupboard? “If you mis-read your target audience your position can become irrecoverable,” says Perls.

What about the staff factor?

Not often considered sufficiently, it might not only be the outside world that takes offence. If a company’s advertising is overtly sexual it can lead to employees questioning their relationship with the boss they thought they knew, warns Sandra Pilson, founder of PEOPeople, an outsourced human resources business. “You’ve got to question the corporate social responsibility of a company, and it could well result in sexual harassment and discrimination claims, for which there is no limit to compensation awards,” she says. “If somebody’s looking for a way out they’ve got an instant link to messages the company uses in the outside world.”

It may also damage your chances of recruiting talent. “Unless sex is being used to sell across all genders and divides it’s difficult to get away with on a human resources level,” adds Pilson. To mitigate the risks, consult your human resources function. Another solution is to give staff a chance to view and give feedback on a proposed campaign. Ask if they have any grievances or objections. Doing this strengthens your hand if a case is brought against you and gives you a good idea of how it’s likely to be received by the outside world.

“No team member should only see a campaign once it hits the public domain because they might know nothing about it when asked,” says Perls, who points out that if they’re embarrassed by the content it could have implications for their home and social life, too.

So would you want to profit from it?

Inevitably, then, there are those that steer clear of sex in all its marketing forms. Terry Hogan, founder of, a £20m turnover online car selling business has actively avoided using sex, despite not being against its use in marketing per se. “We don’t use sex, mainly because when I set the business up four years ago the motor trade was so discriminatory and I wanted to differentiate the business,” he explains. It’s a fact that women get charged more in dealerships and are generally forgotten buyers when it comes to advertising.

Hogan noted though that 52% of cars are registered to women, yet make up only 10% of his customers. He decided to pursue an untapped market by fixing prices and creating a search tool that considers both genders, such as categorising cars on whether you could get a buggy in the boot. With three male directors – all experienced car salesmen – it took a marketing consultant to provide a strong female perspective.

And the results have been impressive, directly adding £160,000 in bottom line profit. “Since marketing directly to women and avoiding sex to sell, we’ve doubled the percentage of women buying from us. By positively discriminating, sales have gone up generally. Having said that, we don’t want to put off men – they’re still our biggest market. I’d like to say it’s principle, but it’s purely business. We simply started to address women’s needs.”

Rich Wagner too is against it. The founder of APS Group, a pre-paid cash card provider, says the finance industry tends to take the moral high ground and adds partners could take a negative view. While he recently had Miss England attend the launch of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Pre-paid Mastercard he assures it had nothing to do with appearances. The card is for migrants and she represents a fine example of the target customer, he says. The first Muslim winner was born in Uzbekhistan to Afghani parents. “Her presence was low-key, she was dressed in a white business suit with the new England shirt underneath – we deliberately did not sex it up, although I’m sure if we had we’d have got more coverage.”

Halpern is another, that while proud of his business’ work, he made a conscious decision not to publicise the more overt campaigns in its portfolio, such as a campaign for lads’ mag Zoo called The Breast Test, where those that received the email guessed the bra sizes of a range of covered breasts – the better they did the more attractive the final image of uncovered breasts. “These were specific campaigns for a particular product and service,” he says. “While appropriate for the products and target markets in question, seen out of context they may appear in questionable taste and offensive.”

Ultimately, if you’ve got doubts, don’t do it, concludes Blears. “The unwritten rules are: never use your clients’ money to knock the competition; sell products’ benefits, not features, and; if you use sex to ‘flag down’ potential consumers, you’ve offended half your market and disappointed the rest – they think they’ll be getting more lust and titillation, not a sales story about odour absorbing shoe insoles. In the process you also define your client as a marketing moron – and the sales proposition as vacuous and bankrupt.”


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