Sex sells, but the Advertising Standards Board’s not buying it

Article by Yolanda Redrup /
Smart Company /
October 17, 2013 /
Click here to view original /

An advertisement by Adelaide-based lingerie brand Innerware has been pulled from television after a complaint was lodged with the Advertising Standards Board.

It’s a long-established concept in marketing that “sex sells”, but this latest ad has sparked a debate around just how far advertisers can push the limits of what’s socially acceptable.

The ad, created by Crisp Advertising, features a woman dressed in risqué lingerie entering a mechanics shop and asking the men if they can fit her.

The complaint submitted to the ASB raised three key concerns: discrimination or vilification of gender; objectification, exploitation or degrading of women and sexuality in general.

“It disgusted me and it is degrading to women. I thought it was an ad for the sex industry when I first saw it,” the complaint reads.

“I feel the ad represents low level porn. While I understand that Innerware is selling underwear, I feel there is no need for the ad to show a woman going to a mechanics in underwear and suspenders and suggestively bending over the counter to ask if they have all the quality brands.”

In response to the complaint the advertisers said the concept was intended to be quirky and “tongue in cheek”.

“In no way was there any intention to discriminate against, objectify, exploit or degrade women… The woman is portrayed as being very confident and in control. In absolutely no way is she undermined by the males in the ad,” the advertisers said.

The ASB, however, ruled the ad did contain strong sexual suggestions with the link between the women dressed in lingerie, her strutting and the sexualised conversation and ruled it has breached a section of the advertising code.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne told SmartCompany sexuality has been present in advertising since it began in the 1700s.

“What we see as sexy may have changed, but using sexuality in advertising has been very consistent since it first appeared,” she says.

“We talk about the mainstreaming of pornography where aspects of porn culture have started to appear in mainstream advertisements, but it’s difficult to determine these days what is mainstream advertising when it comes in many different forms.”

Rosewarne says for advertisers considering using sexual content in advertising, what is considered acceptable is often dictated by what form it takes.

“If you look at what’s shown on billboards for example, this means any audience can see it including three-year-olds and older people. Whereas you can be more selective and targeted if you advertise in a magazine or a television show in a later time slot,” she says.

“Sexuality is a really easy technique of advertising, you don’t have to be clever, it’s a default position everyone can do since it doesn’t rely on artistry or clever words or humour, but it keeps getting used because it validates itself.”

Marketing Angels founder Michelle Gamble told SmartCompany nothing will change the idea that sex sells, but marketers do need to be careful when using it and realise there can be more effective methods of advertising.

“The recent Roxy campaign is a good example of when you have to be really careful and think about who your target audience is,” she says.

“When Roxy strayed from what they’ve always stood for which is girl power, their fans rebelled. The thing which is challenging is that the boundaries are being pushed around sexualisation in the media. We’re seeing more sexual imagery and people are becoming desensitised to overtly sexual and graphic images.”

Gamble says marketers are also taking advantage of the pressure already placed on young girls to be “sexy”.

“Beauty brands do the same thing,” she says.

“But if you look at other brands which have steered away from this and gone for an empowerment message like Dove, they get higher brand engagement and a much stronger brand loyalty than perhaps some of the other brands which play on the idea of the perfect face and the perfect body.”

Rosewarne also warns some brands push the boundaries with the level of sexuality to create media hype.

“Sometimes advertisers try to be sexy beyond what we’re used to in the hope the ad gets pulled because it attracts attention. Some have estimated this gives them up to $1 million in free advertising,” she says.

Earlier this week, the ASB reported that it had received over 15 complaints for an advertisement by underwear brand Bonds, which changed the name of the brand to “Boobs”.