Does sex still sell? Millennials may be changing the game

In December 2018, The Atlantic published a cover story exploring the question Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?  In the article, the author went so far as to declare a “sex recession” among Millennials.

Despite the easing of taboos and the introduction of hookup apps like Tinder and Bumble, young Americans are evidently knocking boots significantly less than previous generations. The reasons range from easy access to pornography to suffering social skills and heightened self-consciousness.

Given the fact that young Americans are having less sex than previous generations, how does this reality impact how marketing efforts are conceived and executed as Millennials assume decision-making positions in the industry? Will the so-called sex recession lead to an increase of sex-focused branding to compensate for less of the real thing? Or will we shy away from the subject altogether as it becomes less relevant?

To arrive at an answer, let’s first take a trip down memory lane.

A brief history of sex in advertising

Sex in advertising, unsurprisingly, dates back to the 19th century, when tobacco companies such as Pearl Tobacco and Duke & Sons began using illustrations of nude or near nude women on their marketing collateral and packaging. The former, for example, featured a “naked maiden” in its earliest advertising, while the latter included sexually provocative trading cards with each pack of cigarettes it sold. Charming, right? Sex in advertising, however, didn’t stop at tobacco. If you scour the history books, you’ll find all kinds of companies selling alcohol, clothes, cars, and the like – each attempting to appeal to its audience with sex. It’s something most everyone loves, so why wouldn’t a company jump to associate it with its brand? This approach became a popular school of thought that stood unchallenged for some time.

Fast forward to today

Today, things aren’t so simple. In an increasingly politically correct social climate catalyzed by mainstream feminism and social justice activism, sex-laden ads have progressed from being popularly perceived as bold to sleazy to downright offensive. Consider Carl’s Jr. – the fast-food chain once famous for hocking softcore-grade TV spots that featured absurdly attractive model-types biting into half-pound burgers and letting the juice drip down their cleavage. At the time these ads began airing in 2005, viewers generally wouldn’t flinch. At worst, such ads were dismissed with rolling eyes. Today, and even in the recent past, we are experiencing an entirely different story.

Consider the 2015 Super Bowl, when Carl’s Jr. ran an ad promoting its all-natural burger. In the spot, a well-endowed model named Charlotte McKinney saunters through a farmers’ market, appearing to be nude and scoring a double-take from every man she passes. The ad ends when McKinney takes a bite out of the burger, and the Carl’s Jr. end-bumper flashes on screen. As you might imagine (or remember), the spot was torn apart by critics, who called it sexist and offensive.

Some will argue that Carl’s Jr. simply chose to appeal to men and thought little of female empowerment, but it turns out sex in ads, regardless of target demographic, doesn’t necessarily translate to dollars. A University of Illinois study found that people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that recall doesn’t extend to the brands or products that are featured in the ads. The same study found that young men unsurprisingly preferred sexual advertising more than other groups, but still, indicated no correlation to sales.

On top of that, a copy testing firm called Ameritest revealed over half of the viewers they showed Carl’s Jr.’s 2015 Super Bowl ad found the spot to be “offensive”, “irritating”, or “annoying”. Thirty-two percent of viewers went as far to say that they “felt worse” about the chain after viewing the commercial. Perhaps that’s why in 2017, Carl’s Jr. abandoned its boobs and burgers brand strategy for something more refined – like poking fun at its own ads.

Not all advertising is so unpalatable

Carl’s Jr. ads were somewhat of an anomaly. The truth is, not all sex in advertising is so damn blatant. High-fashion brands like Dolce & Gabbana, for example, tend to be more tasteful when employing sexual appeals in their marketing. Data shows, however, the degree to which sexually explicit material is used in today’s advertising doesn’t matter. In fact, researchers from the American Psychological Association discovered brands that advertise using sexualized ads were evaluated less favorably overall than those that advertised using nonsexual ads. In other words, the data is clear: sex repels.

It’s time to do better

As long as the sky is blue, LA traffic sucks, and strangers try to add you on LinkedIn, there will be sex in advertising. But that doesn’t mean that strategy will be effective or produce anything of quality. Millennials are finding themselves in a unique position. They can finally buck the trend of polluting ads with nonsensical nudity that only serves to distract from a brand’s true value. As marketers (and some of us millennials), let’s dig deeper to create more meaningful work that doesn’t shroud itself in controversy. Instead, let’s ask ourselves what societal burden does our brand bear? Then let’s broadcast that message in a way that’s so interesting and honest that no one will care to talk about the ad. Perhaps instead, they’ll go out and buy what we’re selling because it’s of value to them.

Sex in advertising is little more than a crutch. You don’t need it, so toss it aside. Focus on creating unique and ownable content. And let’s not waste any time getting started. Especially you millennials. As The Atlantic reports, after all, it’s not like you have anything better to do.