Sex sells. Or does it? Why retail brands are turning down the heat

  • Advertising
  • February 26, 2016
  • Elly Strang
Sex sells. Or does it? Why retail brands are turning down the heat

Fast fashion giant H&M released its inclusive ‘Close the Loop’ ad, which features people of almost every religion, size, colour and gender, while two major fashion chains with declining sales have decided to ditch overtly sexual ads in order to win back consumers.

American Apparel, which filed for bankruptcy in October, said it would abandon its controversial imagery of scantily clad girls posing in provocative ways and recast the brand in a “positive, inclusive, socially conscious light”.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Fitch’s sales have fallen for 11 quarters in a row. In a bid to turn this around, it announced it would stop featuring “sexualised marketing” and no longer use shirtless models at its store openings or in its ads.

Closer to home, I Love Ugly backed down on a controversial jewellery campaign featuring naked women being shielded by men’s hands.

The campaign attracted a barrage of complaints from people who felt the pictures objectified women, with an official complaint to the ASA lodged.

“I object to the use of a naked women being touched in a sexual way in order to tell men's jewellery products. This contravenes point #5 of the Code for People in Advertising. Not only is the sexual appeal of a woman being used to sell a product which is unrelated to sex, but the relationship depicted is exploitative and degrading,” the complainant R. White said.

So, is it safe to say sexualised advertising is falling out of favour with consumers and impacting on sales, both here and abroad?

Not exactly. Dr Sommer Kapitan, a lecturer in marketing and retailing at AUT, says the backlash with I Love Ugly was a special case, as the imagery was lewd.

“The kind of sex featured in that campaign was pornographic in nature. It did achieve attention, though of the type more accurately called notoriety,” Kapitan says.

As far as research goes, results are a bit muddled. The American Psychological Association (APA) published a study on the effects of sexual and violent content within advertising, combining data from 53 experiments and over 8000 participants.

It concluded that sex in marketing never helps brand memory – it either has no affect, or it hurts the brand. The reasoning put forward was that consumers focus on the violent or sexual content within the ad, instead of noticing the brand or product itself.

However, the study also found that while sexual content in ads causes consumers to have a lesser attitude towards the brand, it didn’t result in a decrease of sales.

This may be why I Love Ugly sold out of many of the rings featured in the campaign at the time, showing there are some gains to be had in sales and publicity from controversy.

Though some are predicting the likes of Victoria’s Secret and its marketing strategies no longer click with consumers in 2016, Kapitan says this is not the case at all.

“Sex sells now, in the past, and it will continue to sell in the future,” she says.

Photo / Victoria's Secret Facebook page

Attractive people fronting an ad have long been one most persuasive ways to sell a product or position a brand.

Kapitan says early research into advertising effectiveness in the 1960s and 70s found people tend to equate beauty with power, so a beautiful spokesperson appeared to have more power and choice over what products they endorse.

“So long as any consumer has an aspirational self that differs from their actual self, there will be appeal in products that can make us more attractive,” she says.

People may even be in denial about the power attractive people in ads have over them, psychologist Robert Cialdini writes in Influence.

“In one study, men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments.”

Challenging traditional ideals of beauty

Though companies like Victoria’s Secret may not be losing relevance through their sexy advertising, they may be falling behind when it comes to inclusiveness and representation.

The aforementioned H&M ad, which features a transgender woman, people of colour, Asian descent and Sikh men, as well as plus-size lingerie company Lane Bryant’s campaigns like ‘Plus is equal’, are resonating with a section of society that felt previously invisible in advertising.

Even American Apparel is looking to cast models whose ages range from 16 to 60. 

American Apparel's brand repositioning plan

Kapitan says advertising is beginning to reflect Euro-centric cultures becoming more diverse demographically.

“The more representations we see in society of different body types, different religions, different sexual orientations, and different levels of beauty… the more attitudes shift towards finding those things both more common, more acceptable, and indeed more beautiful.  It becomes a cycle that encourages advertisers and media to reach out to new audiences,” she says.

It’s also worth noting the growing conscious consumerism trend, where people purchase goods that align their values and aspirations.

​Kapitan outlines this in her own personal reaction to I Love Ugly’s campaign.

“I personally do not want to purchase anything that debases my gender, hence I Love Ugly will not be on my radar for upcoming fashion and jewelry purchases. However, H&M with its welcoming philosophy of all body types and faiths and styles and partner choices, will be on my shopping list for the foreseeable future,” she says.

While talent in advertising is beginning to get more diverse, a lot of the time, Kapitan says they still have to be beautiful.

She spoke of one of her student’s studies about how an attractive model can affect the purchases of different products.

In the study, participants rated the same ad for mascara much higher when it was modelled by an attractive model, versus an ordinary woman.

However, when the product was soap, participants rated both versions equally.

“What this tells us is that a ‘regular Joe’ or regular person is a good way to sell products that are not related to enhancing our personal attractiveness, products from soaps to furnishings to cleaning supplies. But when products are sold to us for the express purpose of enhancing our attractiveness and status, from fashion, to makeup, to jewellery, to luxury cars, the beauty of the source or spokesperson matters because it reflects on how we might want to see ourselves.”

Though the inclusiveness of advertising in the fashion industry has arguably come a long way, Kapitan says we are only at the beginning of this process.

“When it is no longer shocking to anyone to see a group of attractive Sikh men advertising for H&M, then we will have come full circle.”

  • This story originally appeared on our sister publication The Register

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