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If you’re an F train rider, you may have seen your trains blanketed with “teaser” ads for Jaguar telling you to watch their commercials on the Super Bowl. That cost them a cool $5 million. And that was on top of the $8 million the company spent for airtime on the Super Bowl. Whatever happened to using sex to sell products? Sex still sells. The old triedand-true formula traces all the way back to 1885 when tobacco companies inserted pictures of scantily clad women on trading cards in their cigarette packs. By the time TV made its entrance in the late 1940s, sexual imagery received a big push thanks to the added sound and motion, exciting the viewing masses even more. One of the most prestigious and best known platforms for advertisers is the Super Bowl, where companies fork over big money to advertise and now, to advertise the advertising.

“It depends on the advertiser,” Wheaton continues. “Beer brands and body spray brands can get away with using sexual innuendo a lot more because the target market is young men. A brand like GoDaddy, on the other hand, had to grow out of its sex-sells approach. It was growing old. People now see their claims of ‘being banned’ from the Super Bowl for the publicity stunt that it is. And, more importantly, it was losing women customers and not picking up new women customers. If women make up a significant chunk of the small business population and work-fromhome population—the sort of people in the market for web-hosting services—dressing up Danica Patrick or Jillian Michaels and suggesting they shower together is probably not the best approach,” he adds.

“The Oikos ad in the Super Bowl basically had the insinuation of a yogurt– related blow job, and in the Butterfinger Cups ad, we had the insinuation of a threesome,” he explains.”

Strangely, for those who watched Super Bowl XLVIII commercials expecting to be teased and titillated instead found themselves out of luck. Advertisers focused instead on “warm and fuzzy” ads, shying away from the risqué. “The difference between “sex sells” and “sexy” is in the eye of the beholder,” explains Ken Wheaton, Managing Editor of Advertising Age magazine. “The same year that GoDaddy cleans up its act, H&M had female viewers vote to see if Beckham would appear with or without underwear in its Super Bowl ad.” This year, it seems not every advertiser is willing to place their bets on sexual sell.

So why are advertisers scaling back the use of sex in ads? “You can definitely get away with more innuendo,” says Wheaton. “The Oikos ad in the Super Bowl basically had the insinuation of a yogurt–related blow job, and in the Butterfinger Cups ad, we had the insinuation of a threesome,” he explains. “But advertisers who dare to step over the line with their ads tend to receive immediate backlash via social media. Users who are outraged and disgusted by advertisers will air

Photo courtesy of

With the cost of 30 second Super Bowl commercials escalating to $4 million per commercial during this year’s big game on Feb. 2, and with more than 50 spots competing for the eyeballs of 115 million viewers, advertisers have some new and costly tricks to make sure we see their ads, like advertising their advertising.

their grievances on a multitude of sites, which in turn can look negative on the part of the advertiser. This could be why GoDaddy decided to tone down their ads. Advertisers who continually use sex to promote may start to see a drop in customers. Sure, you may have an expensive ad that’s oozing with sex, but if it doesn’t grab the audience’s attention, it’s worthless.” With the current trend of advertisers using ads to promote ads and focusing on emotional ads, what does this mean for the future of sex in advertisements? Sex will always sell, even though customers may be opposed to it. From the marketing perspective working in the ad biz, Ken Wheaton believes “it comes and goes. And ads that run on cable, you can get away with a little bit more.” Prime time shows are more inclined to advertise sex. “Shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ and ‘Two Broke Girls,’ they’re really full of over-the-top sexual humor,” and are just two among many shows appealing to an older audience who throw around innuendos and insinuations without a second thought. Even if advertisers do completely pull back on ads relating to sex, we will always have prime time shows as another way of discussing sex. It will never go away. Professor and ad industry veteran John Fraser of the Advertising and Marketing

Communications department, says that we’ve grown accustomed to sexual advertising. “It’s only natural that adults 18 to 34 who grew up exposed to all these messages can easily accept some product placement on a star’s crotch as a permissible way to sell yogurt.” Fraser also identifies our obsession with pop culture as a key influence on advertisers. “Not surprisingly popular culture and current mores inspire copywriters and art directors when they are looking for inspiration in the creation of advertising. Look at how situations from Judd Apatow’s films have been creeping into 30 second spots.” Judd Apatow’s films are not necessarily considered “family-friendly;” he helped to create the cult phenomenon “Girls,” which some consider borderline porn. Advertisers need all the inspiration they can get, and taking a page out of an explicit director’s book may be the best way to sell their product. Sex will always be a part of American culture whether it’s showcased in movies, books, television shows or advertisements. It may ebb and flow at times like these, but if sex didn’t sell product, advertisers would never rely on it to advertise. Sex in advertising, like humor will be around for the foreseeable future.

February 2014: The Sex Issue  
February 2014: The Sex Issue