SEX in Advertising (Mar, 1964)

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SEX in Advertising

How Madison Avenue manipulates erotic images in order to sell more merchandise.

by Richard Stiller, M.A.

Mr. Stiller is Associate Editor of this publication.

There was a time when Madison Avenue avoided the downright sexy and suggestive and settled for a pretty face. And in the advertisements for female undergarments even the pretty face was taboo.

But no more! Today “sex is the sizzle that sells” everything from sweat socks to hotel rooms. And it sells them in erotic images that rival the sexiness of the modern film, novel, and play.

As a matter of fact there is some justice in measuring the so-called revolution in sexual attitudes characteristic of our culture by this increased use of sex in advertising. A New York State Supreme Court judge did just that last September when he ruled that a number of admittedly “trashy” novels attacked as obscene did not really go beyond the accepted mores of our time.

“Today,” said Justice J. Erwin Shapiro in what may be a historic censorship case, “skirts are shorter and the outlined erogenous areas of women are taken matter-of-factly. The under-garment model has dropped the mask from her eyes and looks at you slyly as she displays the advantages of any-brand’s lira and girdle in advertisements published in ladies’ magazines and our most respected newspapers and in telecasts coming into the home. ..”

An examination of some of these magazines and newspapers indicates that the undergarment model has dropped more than the mask. Nudity and near-nudity-— almost always charged with considerable eroticism—seems to be the rule. A model poses provocatively in a rear-view photograph wearing nothing but panties. Another models a girdle—and only a girdle—in a front view in which her long hair barely conceals her breasts.

A good many ultra-respectable family publications are part of this new spirit. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, says one writer, is “the sexiest place in town.” Top fashion photographers and models who used to turn up their noses at lingerie ads are now producing—and justifying—what a leading fashion editor calls “the trend … to beauty—beauty of the photograph as well as the model and the garment.”

The sales power of sex of course is not limited to female underwear. And it is not always addressed to would-be temptresses who are encouraged to identify themselves with the sultry model. Nor is it always direct and unsophisticated.

In a recent issue of a leading men’s magazine, an advertisement for sweat socks showed a sexy model in decollete evening gown, beehive hairdo, and dangling earrings—on the tennis court! A conservative men’s wear supplement ran a 2-page full-color ad for men’s shirts. But it displayed them on 6 lushly-endowed, provocatively-posed female models, who appeared otherwise unclad!

Another men’s ad showed a virile – looking young man in nothing but a shirt and a soft (and suggestive) focus. Addressed to the wives who buy their husband’s shirts, the advertisement stressed the “vitality” and “insolent nonchalance” of the wearer. Another publicized a man’s cologne with the slogan: “Positively crackles with masculinity!”

Sometimes the sex pitch leaves the frankly erotic pictures and word-images and descends to the murky “motivational” manipulation of so-called sex symbols.

In a best-selling expose of the automobile industry’s marketing techniques, John Keats, in The Insolent Chariots, says that Detroit does this “by building deliberate sexual symbols into automobile designs in the expectation that the car’s outward shape would precisely represent the shape of the customer’s sexual peculiarity. It is not sheer accident, for example, that most manufacturers put penile geegaws on the hoods of their cars, or that Cadillac’s stylists speak of the ‘bosoms’ on their bumpers, or that Buick came up with its famous ring pierced by a flying phallus, or that Madison Avenue was quick to applaud the Edsel for its ‘vaginal look,’ or that so many Detroit stylists lavish so much attention on the rear ends of automobiles.”

The tobacco industry is perhaps a worse (and more sinister) offender. A current cigarette commercial, for example, claims that Brand X “separates the men from the boys—but not from the girls!” In view of the by now widely accepted relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, this kind of distortion, which equates smoking with sexuality, can be a real menace to the young.

“There can be no doubt,” says Dr. Paul V. Lemkau, “there is a definite effect on starting smoking by the ads. They play naturally on all the changes that can appeal to the adolescent glamourous sexuality, rugged maleness, (etc.). . . .”

More to the point, the British National Union of Teachers has issued a booklet attacking the use of sex in advertising. The British teachers object to the reinforcement of unhealthy sexual attitudes by the kind of mass advertising which sells—perhaps more effectively than it sells merchandise—a sick and purely physical eroticism that is totally devoid of human warmth and love. The booklet condemns advertisements which suggest that “a girl’s sole purpose in life is to attract and keep a man.”

“. . . The exploitation of sex in many advertisements,” say the teachers, “is particularly dangerous to young people who are vulnerable to this type of appeal but lack experience to see it in perspective.”

If it is true—as Justice Shapiro suggests—that sex in advertising is a symptom of the increasing overt sexuality of our culture, we may be in for more of the same. According to many observers the trend to greater eroticism in both advertising and in fashion is accelerating. Some experts predict that the bikini bathing suit is only a gradual step towards more nudity on the beach.

And not only on the beach. The latest news from Paris is that naked bosoms—once quite stylish in medieval Europe and even as recently as post – revolutionary France—are in fashion this year.

Leading the neckline plunge is the pace-setting Dior studio, which in its most recent Paris collection presented evening gowns with an abundance of naked breast framed, in the words of one leading high-fashion magazine, in “audacious black.” Reported Time magazine: “The bosom was not only seen . . . but ‘almost heard.'” And the New York Herald Tribune found the new neckline “positively clinical.”

It’s hard to see where the trend to more—and nuder—sex in advertising will end. Perhaps Madison Avenue will pull up sharp at the thought that there can be— after all — too much of a good thing.

Especially in our sexually hypocritical culture, which on the one hand piously condemns nil sex as fundamentally “immoral” while at the same time it merchandises erotic fantasies for all the cash they’re worth.

Perhaps the advertising industry will soon come to the realization that the bemused consumer might “buy” the sex and let the sweat socks go.

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