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Rethinking Sex in Advertising

This issue brings together several disparate looks at the role of sexuality in the construction and reception of advertising messages. However, there is an important difference in the focus of these topics: normally, when we think of “sex in advertising,” we think of images and messages that feature or exploit women for the benefit of the heterosexual male gaze. Yet in the past ten or fifteen years, the sexy images or messages in advertising have not only included provocative photographs of men, but also implicated homosexual preferences—both gay and lesbian—as well as the gazes of heterosexual women. These images often provoke a very wide range of responses, from gay activists who welcome the recognition of diverse orientations to religious fundamentalists who are outraged at representations of lifestyles they see as immoral. At the same time, some sexually-charged pictures have reached into the arena of child pornography by showing very young girls in various states of undress and provocative poses. Such ads continue to outrage feminists, but also offend parents and very nearly everybody else. 

So, for this issue, I wanted to explore some different views of the advertising canard that “sex sells.” In an environment where sexy images run up against moral limits in a profound way and yet also bring to light sexual orientations that were previously (and still are to many) taboo, we must think a little smarter about the effects of the “sexual sell.” This simplistic belief, which tends to rely on a pseudo-Freudian notion of an unconscious, hard-wired (but always male, heterosexual) sexual reflex, cannot conceptually accommodate a world in which responses to sexual messages vary widely, based on everything from religious affiliation to political convictions to sexual preference. In such a world, we must begin to realize that the response to sexual messages, like all other responses to advertising texts, is a complex, culturally- and historically-situated, thing. But, unlike most other advertising texts, the risk of negative response to a sexual message may be extremely intense, far outweighing the perceived advantages.

Some of the most controversial sexual messages of the past decade have been conceived of and crafted by Sam Shahid, who is interviewed in our first article. The interviewer, Tom Reichert, then reviews the extant empirical literature on consumer response to sexual messages. While readers will see from these two articles how complex response may be, the third article by Joe Bob Hester and Rhonda Gibson adds another twist: it shows the way responses to messages that evoke the gay subculture depend on political orientation. Finally, we are happy to have permission to reprint a chapter from Anne Hollander's book, Sex and Suits, which documents the evolution of men's clothing and representations of male sexuality in art and photography, showing clearly that our notions of what is appropriate and sexy in images of men is historically constructed. 

Even in the academy, there is a tendency to accept uncritically the dubious wisdom that “sex sells.” I hope that, after perusing this issue, some readers will begin to think about this truism in a more complex, grounded way.

Linda M. Scott
Editor