Using Sex to Build a Brand

It’s a known fact that using sex to sell a brand works. But does it build lasting brands? If you ask Calvin Klein, he would say yes. In the last 40 years, he made a 2.5 billion dollar business using provocative and sexual images. (1)

For years, cars, beer, perfume and recently, deodorant and fast food are sold to men through images of scantily-clad, perfectly sculptured women. Tapping into the basic instincts that sex is universal interest. Sexy pictures drive eyeballs, especially men who think about sex every 7 seconds! (2)

Sexual Brand Content Get Noticed

“Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective,” said researcher Tom Reichert who conducted a study at the University of Georgia on sexual advertising. (3) “Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hard-wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.”

“Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy,” he said. “But, brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguable, Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are not much different than Hanes, Jockey or Playtex, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as ‘sexy,’ and some customers want that.”

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch markets its erotic brand image to college-age adults but ends-up attracting many younger teens. Not only do they show beautiful youth in their advertising, but they hire the best-looking young people to model their clothes in the stores. They made sure the brand lives not only in the advertising but in the stores. I wonder why beer stores don’t respect their brands the same way.

Scientists claim they have discovered precisely why sex sells a brand – and it isn’t just because consumers think that if they buy the car, they can get the girl. Researchers found seeing an attractive man or woman in provocative clothing and positions in advertising excites the areas of the brain that make us buy on impulse, bypassing the sections which control rational thought. Their study found that advertising using logical persuasion – simple, convincing facts – is less useful in making us buy than advertising using non-rational influence – feel good, stimulating images. (4) Did we need research to tell us that sex sells brands?

The fact that using sex to sell a brand in advertising has almost doubled in 30 years isn’t a big surprise. (3) But what was sexy 30 years ago has changed drastically today, where pornography is mainstream in our culture.



Risky Brand Business

Sex comes with many risks (including rashes and bumps in areas that we don’t want to talk about). Klein doesn’t apologize for pushing the envelope in what is deemed decent and what isn’t. “Sometimes people look at the advertising and resent it or feel threatened by what they see — but in the end, if the sales are good, the images must be OK,” Klein said. The fact is CK’s men’s underwear owns the underwear market ever since Mark Wahlberg wore nothing but.

Both Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch continue to walk the fine line between sexy and softcore porn. Consumer groups have launched boycott campaigns against both companies over the years and have successfully had advertising campaigns removed from public viewing. For example, the Virginia Beach police seized photos from an Abercrombie store that were deemed indecent.

The fact is beautiful airbrushed, and naked people can help sell products and build a sexually compelling brand. Dove soap took a different approach by showcasing their products on nude, everyday, wholesome women, so maybe we’re not as superficial after all. They did get bad press when it was discovered some of the women’s images were digitally enhanced to make them look better. OK, maybe we are superficial.


Eat It Up or Spit It Out?

It makes sense to use provocative, sexy brand images that are closely associated with the product brands such as underwear, perfume and maybe alcohol, but selling a hamburger is a stretch.


Hannah Ferguson’s and Paris Hilton’s hypersexual ad to sell Carl’s Jr. Texas BBQ Thickburger is an easy way to accomplish edginess and draw attention, but does it fulfill Carl’s Jr. brand promise and is it sustainable? I don’t think so.

Make sure you use this power wisely and don’t flaunt it unnecessarily, or it could do more damage than good to your brand. Remember, over-promising can only lead to disappointment and negative feelings, which aren’t brand builders. Using sex to sell a brand that is unrelated to sex can be seen as a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product brand.

Your audience will always have the final say, and they’ll tell you at the cash register. Continue to provoke, shock and engage, because as long as your audience has permitted you, they’ll eat it up like a CoolWhip® bikini.


The title image was taken from a Body Shop ad to sell soap on a rope. For real.

(1) 1996 was the only sales figure I could find as the company was private until sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. in 2002.
(2) Kinsey Institute disputes this claim; they state that 54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day, and 43% a few times per month or a few times per week.
(3) Magazine trends study finds an increase in advertisements using Sex, UGA Today online news, June 5, 2012,
(4) Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, UCLA and George Washington University, research lead by Dr. Ian Cook, September 2011

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