Taking ADvantage
You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

This chapter examines how advertising takes advantage of human biological and social evolution to use sex to sell products.

Chapter Six

Sex Appeal

The handsome couple walks down the street, obviously pleased with each other's company. She laughs, reaches over and pats his behind. She's a Charlie Perfume woman.


He's standing in the phone booth when she appears outside, beautiful, seductive, giving him the eye. He melts into a pile of quivering goo, hangs up in midsentence, and opens the door. She smiles seductively and slides past him into the booth. He steps back -- and she closes the door in his face. With an expression of "What happened here?" he goes for a beer.


She leans forward, exposing an incredible quantity of cleavage. The headline reads, "This is Debbie. She wants you to have this pair in your car." The rest of the ad talks about buying the grease gun cartridges she holds in either hand.


You may recognize the above examples. What they all have in common is sex -- sex as an appeal to the consumer, some subtle, some blatant. Why does advertising use sex as an appeal to the consumer? The answer is simple: because it works.


Sex is the second strongest of the psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation. Its strength is biological and instinctive, the genetic imperative of reproduction. However, its effectiveness and application are gender linked. The differences in male and female psychobiology cause different approaches to and perceptions of sex, both the act and its outcome.

Sexual desire is an instinctive reaction in animals, and an individual's perception of a suitable mate is the basis. That perception usually is a set of criteria that the opposite sex must meet, or at least approximate. An individual regards a member of the opposite gender that meets or exceeds (at least, within the available pool of possibilities) those criteria as being superior to others of that gender. It is therefore the individual that will provide the chance for the highest quality offspring with the best chance of survival. When a possibility doesn't meet the criteria, sexual desire does not occur.

As in other animals, humans base their criteria on their reproductive strategies. And as in other animals, men and women have different strategies, based on that will increase each gender's chances at genetic success.

In time and energy, the male expends virtually nothing in sexual contact compared to the female. Biologically, the best strategy for a man is to be promiscuous. The more women with which he mates, the greater number of children containing his genes are possible.

Thus, a man's biological criteria can be simple: 1) she must be healthy; 2) she must be young; 3) she must be receptive; 4) and she must be impregnable. The sex act is of paramount importance to the man; it is how he impregnates the woman. After that, his concern is having more women to impregnate.

Women, on the other hand, have a far greater physical, physiological and temporal stake in producing children. This means she must be highly selective in her choice of men if she wishes to produce the highest quality children in her reproductive lifetime. If she selects just any man that comes along, she could waste all that time and energy that pregnancy and rearing require on a possibly weak or nonviable child. She thus aims her biological criteria at getting the best possible man. The sex act, and his participation, being so brief, doesn't have to be of any particular interest to her. What is important is the quality of genes he brings and the help, if any, she will have while carrying, bearing and rearing the children. (See Biological Basis of Human Behavior; | Reproduction; |Reproduction: Part 2; |Social Basis of Human Sexual Behavior|and Cultural Basis of Human Behavior for discussions of the influences on human reactions to sexual stimuli.)


However, humans are not just biological creatures. There is something unique about us that makes reproduction unusual: we can think. We are the only creatures on earth that can manipulate their environment, communicate across distance and time, remember the past as discrete events and project possible present actions into the future effects of those actions. We have evolved complex societies and cultures based on these (as far as we know) unique abilities. Thus, human criteria for sexual desire and selection are greatly complicated, since we apply not only physical, but societal, cultural and economic criteria to desire and selection. The evolution of the human being and human mind has resulted in an incredibly complex psychophysiology.

Nonetheless, the biological criteria still apply. The man has a drive to impregnate as many women as possible, to create as many children with his genes as possible.

However, a man is a member of the human race, and thus is also aware of human society, its constraints and demands. He will desire any woman in sight who satisfies his physical, instinctive criteria. However, he also applies societal and cultural criteria that overlay the instinctive criteria.

Women, on the other hand, run into a real problem: the human mind. A woman's mind allows her, and indeed forces her to examine possible criteria to a much greater extent than any other animal. She can also imagine the outcome of choices in the future. The criteria for her to desire sexually a man can include strength or health or fighting ability, like the lion or the wolf, but can also include intelligence, money, power, prestige, position, status, attitudes, political or religious convictions, any number and combination of factors that will lead her to believe that he will contribute the best possible genes and chance for survival to her children.

She also has sexual desires as strong as a man's. However, she will often subordinate that desire. That is, she may desire a physically attractive man, but she will not actually have sex with him until he has satisfied more than physical criteria.


If she fits his instinctive criteria, a man will often ignore it if a woman doesn't fit the societal criteria, since men have only had to consider them for a few thousand years. Physical attractiveness is all his instincts say is necessary for him to desire sex.

She, on the other hand, will rarely ignore her societal criteria since they are dominant in her determination of the right man. Physical attractiveness may be enough for her to allow his approach, but he must satisfy her other criteria before she will allow sex. If he satisfies her societal criteria to a large enough extent, she will even ignore physical attractiveness. Societal criteria have a greater influence on her and her children's future in human society than her criteria on his physical appearance.

However, society does not reduce the considerable differences in the way men and women regard sex on an instinctive level. The instincts that control sexual desire have evolved over a billion years: male promiscuity and his simple, physical criteria for a female to be desirable; female caution and her complex physical and social criteria to select the best possible male. That many of the social criteria that she had to consider have lessened, and that he didn't consider have increased, in the last forty years, cannot reduce those millions-year-old instincts.


What does all this have to do with sex in advertising? The purpose of advertising is to convince people that products are of use to them in one way or another. If people agree, they will buy them. However, advertising must do its job very quickly; it doesn't have the time or the space to go into detail or explanations (see Chapter One, An Overview of Advertising).

For many products it is possible to find (or invent) a sexual connection. However, the sexual connection is much easier to set up for men than for women. Remember that men have minimal criteria for sexual desire; basically, they are concerned with a woman's anatomy -- as long as a woman looks young enough and healthy, she is desirable. Men also consider her beautiful, since to a male beautiful and sexually attractive are virtually synonymous.

Thus, in advertising it is easy to get a man's attention by using women's bodies and associate getting the woman if he buys the product. It is playing on his instinctive rather than intellectual view of the world. The ad spends no time discussing her qualifications for sexual desire -- her mere existence is enough.

Mitigating the instinctive view is the intellectual; most men are aware that women are less concerned with mere anatomy. Women are looking for more. Thus, advertising can show the woman and sell the product on the basis of "women want this [product] in a man. Get the product, get the woman."


The use of sex in advertising to women is a much more difficult proposition. Although they do have an instinctive sexual reaction, their intelligence strongly affects it at the same time. The use of healthy, fit men may indeed attract their attention and create desire, but their willingness to engage in intercourse is rarely aroused strictly because of a man's body. For a woman, sexual desire is a complex mixture of factors, most of which are extremely difficult to inject into an ad in the time and space available. A man's physical appearance plays a role, suggesting health and strength, but her instinctive concern is the long-run, not the short-term. She must see that he is capable not only of sexual activity, but can father healthy children, support and nurture her during pregnancy and birth, and herself and the child after birth, plus assure that the child will be better off than any competition it might have. Many of these factors are also learned in the culture and society. Money, power, prestige, etc., are factors that culture defines as extremely valuable (although rarely placed in the context of being valuable to future children). The woman learns their importance and adds them to her criteria for male sexual desirability. Again, please note that she rarely consciously considers these factors when selecting which man to examine for his suitability as a mate. She will, though, often consciously consider them when deciding whether or not to have sex with him.

However, these factors are almost impossible to put in any one ad; there is not enough time or space to set up the appeal and sell the product.(1)

Finally, remember the story of Ms. and Mr. Primate from Biological Basis of Human Behavior. Sex and aggression became linked to a certain degree by Mr. Primate changing his technique. However, to Ms. Primate, he directed the aggression at her -- she was the victim. Over the years (and it must have been hundreds of thousands of years), hard-wired into her brain must have been the connection of the sex act and aggression. That she didn't enjoy it didn't matter as long as she got pregnant and had offspring; nature doesn't worry about enjoyment and convenience, just results.(2)

Thus, it is rare for advertising to use sex as an appeal for women. Unlike men (who must enjoy sex to achieve orgasm and thus impregnate the woman), women are often less interested in the sex act itself for its own sake. They are interested in sex for what it can mean in the future. They may enjoy it as much as men, but for them it has a far greater significance. Advertising cannot take advantage of a woman's instinctive sexual desire, because advertising job is not to build for the future -- it is to sell a product now.

To sell to a woman, advertising relies on that modern idea (only a few hundred years old) about how men and women relate -- romance. Romance fits into the woman's intellectual view of relationships since its major element, courtship, the process by which men apply to be and women select mates, is the discovery of how the male does or does not satisfy her societal criteria for a suitable sexual partner. Rarely does the romantic appeal contain the blatant sexual messages that appear in ads aimed at men since such messages would counter the intellectual view. Although an ad may use a man's body as an attention getting device, he is usually shown in a romantic rather than sexual context.

Thus, it is clear that sex is a strong appeal to use in advertising. However, it is a gender linked appeal. Sex easily sells to men; it is an adjunct to women.


How does all this work in practice? Obviously, it depends on the product. As shown in Chapter One, advertisers aim products and services at a specific audience, a target, those most likely to buy the product or service. Since many products or services are intended for one gender or the other, the use of sex appeal varies.

For ads aimed at women, they can achieve the romance approach through using stereotypical images: roses, soft light and music, a doting man (often a bit bumbling and thus endearing). The ad sells the product on the basis that its purchase will give the woman this feeling of romance in her life.

For example, diamond advertisements use a romantic approach. Although men buy most diamonds, they buy them for women; in general, she makes the purchase decision. Thus, it makes sense to aim the ads at the woman. The images are of soft lighting, elegant surroundings, and an obviously well-to-do man (who is also sometimes a supportive and nurturing parent) offering the gift of diamonds. These images satisfy a woman's societal criteria for a desirable man: money, status, taste, and sensitivity to her wants and needs. If there are any sexual undertones, they are extremely subdued and non-threatening.

Another ad: A beautiful, naked (apparently) woman sits surrounded by darkness. She's pulled up her left leg, her right leg crossed in front of her. Her arm reaches down, her hand holding her right shin. The image is one of strong sensuality. However, the appearance is not one of strong sexuality. She appears relaxed and content, graceful rather than erotic. The only possible signs of sex are strictly Freudian symbology: her arms forming a triangle with her leg between them, which could be read as an erect penis within a vagina. However, such a reading is so subtle that few would see it: those to whom I've shown the ad said she positioned her leg to cover her breasts. She could be simply enjoying the sunshine.

Another example, for perfume: A woman walks along a street. An attractive man smells her perfume and begins chasing after her, often stumbling and bumbling like a puppy. He quickly buys a bouquet of flowers and, when he catches up to her, hands her the flowers with a look of adoration. She smiles at him condescendingly and continues walking, pleased with his reaction, as he stands and watches her go.

Changes in advertising are, of course, changing as society changes. As you may recall from above, women in today's society are much more liberated in their sexual mores than they have been in millennia past. Advertising, realizing this change in women's perception of sex and sexual activity, is beginning to alter its approach to sex as a selling tool to women. For example, an ad for Coors Light beer (see below about beer) begins with a model in a bikini walking toward the camera while the narrator says, "Because if you don't watch your figure . . .who will?" This is a clear indication that the woman's concern is attracting the attention of men from which to choose, and that using the product will aid her in her quest. The difference is in contrast to ads aimed at men, that she will attract men's attention, not that sexual activity will be a concomitant result of using the product, no matter what she looks like. This again leaves it up to her to make the choice of with whom, and whether, she will have sex.

Note there is little indication of actual sex in these examples. The ad may suggest it as a possibility, but not a certainty simply because of the product. What is certain is that any suggestion of sex is subtle and non-threatening, with the woman in total control, attracting men's attention but not arousing them.


For ads aimed at men, courtship and romance are not a primary approach. Instead, the approach is sex without any complications or difficulties.

Let us take, for example, beer. According to demographics, men rather than women buy and drink the most beer.(3) Therefore, it makes sense for most beer advertising to aim at men. Also, since most beers are parity items (there is little difference between one brand and another), to make a particular brand more appealing to the consumer than another, the ads must induce the difference between them.

With sex appeal the second strongest appeal, it makes sense to use it to make a certain beer more attractive to males (it's difficult to show how drinking beer will keep you alive). The easiest way to do this is to show how attractive a man can be to beautiful women if he drinks that beer.

Now remember the beer ads you have seen (always bearing in mind that ads can't show actual sexual activity on commercial television or in mass market magazines). Notice that ads link the beer with beautiful women:

Four men sit alone at the beach. Three beautiful women in bikinis walk by and ignore the men's invitation to join them. The beer arrives. Immediately, those same women join the men, sitting on their laps or hugging them. Obviously, it was the beer that convinced the women that these men were desirable.

Two men walk through the desert. One opens a suitcase and a full-sized swimming pool (complete with water) inflates. They sit by the pool and a beautiful woman in a bathing suit serves them beer. When the second man asks where she came from, the first holds up a second small suitcase. Obviously, the beer gives men a power over women. (Also please note the implied attitude toward women -- they are blow-up toys designed to serve men).

Five men are by a river, fishing. A crate of lobsters falls from the sky. The lobsters are followed by the Swedish bikini team, followed by cases of beer washing up on the shore. The bikini team immediately joins the men for fun and snuggling.

This is not to imply that all beer commercials use sex to differentiate their products; many use self-esteem, personal enjoyment, or even altruism. Nonetheless, sex is a powerful and easy method of getting male attention and making their product desirable.

Note that in all the ads described, there is no indication that the women are anything but beautiful (i.e., sexually desirable) and become receptive because the men are drinking a particular beer. They don't speak, show no signs of money, position, power or intellect -- they are simply beautiful. Although our culture considers deeming mere physical appearance as all that is necessary to make a woman desirable sexist and demeaning to women, the fact remains that for a male it is all that is necessary, an inheritance of biological nature. A man's eye is attracted to and follows a woman's face and form, not the fact she carries Gray's Anatomy or Plato's Republic in the original Greek, puts money in the Salvation Army kettle, or drives an expensive car. None of these make a woman sexually desirable in and of themselves: if they did, Mother Theresa, Jean Kirkpatrick, and Leona Helmsley would replace Christy Brinkley, Paulina Poriskova and Marilyn Monroe as sex symbols. Although the former clearly have intelligence, generosity, compassion and/or money, it is the latter that men lust after.

Occasionally, ads will use innuendo and double entendre in the copy. For example, I recently saw an ad with the headline, "You can't win if you don't stick it in," clearly carrying a connotation of sexual activity. The ad was promoting voting, and carried an illustration of a hand putting a ballot in a box. A commercial for Tiparillo small cigars was set on a train. A man and a woman sat in a compartment across from each other. The slogan was, "Does a gentleman offer a lady a Tiparillo?" As she smiled and accepted the cigar, the train was seen plunging into a tunnel (a Freudian symbol for sexual intercourse). The implication was clear: if a gentleman offers a lady a Tiparillo and she accepts, she is accepting him for sex as well.

In this direct mail ad for an online service, the approach looks very much like those 1-900 sex talk phone ads: if you (a man) subscribe to the service, you'll have cybersex with a beautiful woman like her. Note that there is no indication of anything else provided by the online service.

An all-time classic use of innuendo was Clairol's "Does she or doesn't she?" The overt meaning is obvious: "Does she color her hair or not?" However, a covert meaning could be does she or does she not have sex. Even the rest of the headline, "Only her hairdresser knows for sure," doesn't completely remove the innuendo, since the cliché is that women tell their hairdressers everything, including about their love lives. Thus, the ad implies that a woman dying her hair may be seeking romance and/or sex, and that Clairol gives her the best chance of achieving her goal.


Is it wrong to use sex as a selling tool, especially the way it is used to attract the attention and try to sell to men through their biological attraction to women's bodies? It depends on how you define sexual attraction. If you do it biologically, it is right. If you do it culturally, it is wrong (depending on your culture). Biologically, the purpose of being male is to become aroused by and impregnate as many viable females as possible. For a male, the criterion that a female must meet is to be sexually arousing -- nothing else is important.

Culturally, there is a difference. The difference is that the male must satisfy the female's criteria for being sexually attractive.

Please note the wording: for a male, sexual arousal is important; for the female, sexual attractiveness is important. There is a difference. For a male, he must be sexually aroused to fulfill his biological function. A human male must have an erection and maintain it through orgasm. If he fails in either, he fails in his biological function.(4)

For the female, on the other hand, arousal is not as important as receptiveness, which she achieves through finding the male sexually attractive. There is no biological need for her either to take pleasure in the sex act or achieve orgasm. If she can arouse the male, she fulfills her biological part of the sex act. Beyond that, her biological function is to get pregnant, give birth, and nurture the offspring.

However, in the human cultural world, which often subordinates biology to intellect, this dichotomy between male and female views of sex can cause friction. Women find men regarding them as "sex objects", considering them sexually attractive strictly on their physical appearance, with no regard for their intelligence or status as equal human beings, offensive and demeaning. Men find women regarding them as insensitive louts because they respond to billion-year-old instincts over which they have no control, and having women demand they suppress and ignore those instincts, offensive and demeaning. Since neither gender can alter their instincts, they must alter their intellectual views. This is easier for women, since such a major part of their instinctive sexual response is societal and intellectual to start with. Men are making a great effort to overlay their automatic responses with societal and cultural regards.

Thus, the use of sex in advertising is a two-edged sword. Although it is extremely powerful and effective when aimed at one gender, it often does so at the social expense of the other. Since humans live in a social world, consideration must be given to the feelings of the people in that world. If advertising uses the sex appeal, it must be carefully aimed and tastefully done. There is no sense in appealing to one sex by offending the other.


1 Side note: the use of stereotypes can aid an ad to produce the desired effect on women, such as showing him as not only handsome and healthy, but rich by showing him with expensive cars and clothing, being intelligent and sophisticated. However, even stereotypes can only go so far before they break down.

2 Side note: there are some anthropological theories that say she got the orgasm to make up for the fear. A little thought will show how ridiculous that is. Nature doesn't care how she feels, any more than nature cares how the male black widow spider, male praying mantis, or stag feels.

3 85% of beer is consumed by men (Kauner, p. 16)

4 Side note: this is why impotence is such a psychologically devastating event for a man -- since his animal (i.e., non-cognitive, non-cultural function) is sexual potency, he equates potency with being alive, worthwhile, deserving of continued existence. Culturally and societally, an impotent man can make just as great a contribution to the commonweal, but deep down inside, he often considers himself a failure (biologically, he is).

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