Risque photography: the closing gap between advertising and pornography

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25 NOVEMBER 2013





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Often it is difficult to distinguish between people’s God-given, right to freedom of speech, and moral discretion. At some point, it must be decided what is allowable to advertise, and what is demeaning and unethical. In 2010, Calvin Klein published a very controversial photo featuring a famous model, Lara Stone, surrounded by men. She is on her back, in a “sexy” black dress while the men all have varying degrees of clothes on. One man is holding her down while another is holding her hair. The photo was supposed to be an advertisement for Calvin Klein jeans, yet it sent a disturbing message. The photo caused an immense uproar, and many interpreted the scene as glamorizing rape and violence against women (Beautifully Invisible). Poorly designed photos like these, with such an obvious sexual nature to them, often receive negative interpretations. It is one thing to appeal to an older audience with a bit of “harmless”, sexual romance. It is another to turn photos that depict romance into ones that could arguably support sexual assault.

Advertising comes in many forms but most rely heavily upon sex appeal. Proponents of sexualized print advertising claim that adding such appeal to a product can be very beneficial to a company’s sales of the product(s) portrayed in the advertisement. Studies have shown that adding a sexy factor to an advertisement does increase sales. There is no denying that sex sells. However, other studies prove that this sex appeal only goes so far. The fashion industry contains the worst examples. There comes a point when a picture is no longer depicting high fashion. Rather, it becomes a distasteful attempt to sell raunchy clothes. This over-sexualized, print advertising not only decreases a company’s merit and success, but it also negatively influences young teenagers who view those types of photos on a daily basis.

People argue in favor of sexualized advertising because sex sells. This is an undeniable, proven fact. Numerous studies have been conducted on this subject. One in particular found that the “use of an attractive or sexy female model enhanced recognition of print ads” (Severn 15). Using attractive women, or men as well, in an advertisement cause people to recognize one specific company more than another, which did not have sexy female or male models in their advertisement, did. Another study found that “use of sexually explicit visual appeal will result in more favorable attitude toward the ad[vertisement]” (16). These findings prove that adding sex appeal to an advertisement is a positive action that more companies ought to practice. Any company looking to increase sales need only make an advertisement with a sexy man or woman in the photo. Increasing the positive attitude toward a product leads to an increase in sales, hence the benefit to companies. New research in advertising also reveals that “sexual appeals are attention getting, arousing, affect inducing, memorable, and commonplace” (Moore 41). Millions of people see these print advertisements every day, and an added sex appeal causes them to stop and look twice and have a favorable opinion towards the product. Unfortunately, some companies set the bar too high, and go too far. Sexualized advertisements then become raunchy and pornographic.

Others try to argue that sex appeal can be beneficial in drawing attention towards some sort of cause. If having a sexy woman on an advertisement really causes people to look more closely at it and can even make them consider what the advertisement is trying to say, then why not use this method for raising awareness about world hunger or violence against women? This method was tried and it failed. Imogen Bailey, a famous super-model in Australia, has worked with several of PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaigns. Although her pictures are trying to send a message, they are much more focused on their sexual nature than on protesting the use of real fur coats, or cruelty to animals. One example is evident in Bailey’s photo to boycott the bull-riding world cup. This is a great cause for her to be publicly fighting for, but the method it was done in was unnecessary. The caption on the photo read, “No one likes an 8-second ride” and she posed in a dress that was falling off her, while lying on a haystack (PETA). The statement is trying to equate the 8 second bull ride to having sex for 8 seconds. And it is also attempting to say that, obviously, nobody enjoys sex for 8 seconds, so why would a bull like to be ridden for 8 seconds? The poorly made advertisement focused more on how Bailey looked than on the message it was trying to send, making it another example of how advertising has become over-sexualized. There may be benefits, but they disappear when advertisers use the pictures unethically or in an exploitative manner. Even pictures that benefit a cause can be controversial or too hard-hitting.

Fashion advertisements also unnecessarily push the envelope. A few companies in particular have really stretched the limits on high fashion, leaning more towards distasteful pornography. Dolce and Gabbana has received significant criticism for their obvious over-sexualized advertisements, many of which were banned because of their link to gang rape and abuse (Bartz). It is one matter to increase the appeal of a product by showing a beautiful woman wearing it. It is another to surround her by men, as Dolce and Gabbana do, positioned in such a matter as to imply rape. There is one picture in particular that they were forced to pull world-wide because of the controversy that it stirred. The picture depicted a woman pinned to the ground by her wrists by a shirt-less man while other men looked on in the background. She is immobilized and helpless (Beautifully Invisible). Images like these degrade women and have no place in the advertisement world, whether it be for fashion, or otherwise.

Many other “fashion” images that supposedly advertise for clothes arguably glamorize rape or assaults, as well. Their sexual nature is no longer appealing when it gets to this point. Pictures that offer such obscene images now seem so appalling to viewers that they are detrimental to the consumption of that product rather than increasing sales. One study in particular showed that appeal did increase with more sexuality, but as soon as the pictures became too risqué with naked bodies, the viewers felt distaste and their desire for the product decreased (Peterson 61). Tom Ford advertises their fragrances for men using completely naked women. One photo portrays a woman, midriff to lower thigh, wearing nothing. The only thing hiding her vagina from public view is a tiny bottle of cologne, the product they are trying to sell. Another photo has a woman holding the bottle between her breasts, the only coverage of her nipples being her cupped hands (Tom Ford). These photos turn women into sex objects. They are distasteful and have been proven unsuccessful. As soon as consumers no longer desire a product, because of how it was advertised, sales drop. It is simple economics, yet companies can not seem to grasp the concept.

Sexualized advertizing has even found its way into the food industry. Both Burger King and Mentos have used sexualized advertising. Burger King posed a woman with her mouth open appearing to be about to take a bite out of a “seven incher” sandwich (Cheye). This picture attempted to imitate “oral sex” and is not appropriate while trying to sell food. If anything, it takes someone’s appetite away! Mentos has been creating advertisements where the only thing covering up a woman’s breast or buttocks is a Mentos pack (G. Sylvia). Inappropriate amounts or types of nudity and sexual poses in advertisements produce “deleterious effects, not only regarding perceptions toward the firm’s advertisements, but even towards its products and corporate image” (Peterson 62). This over-sexualization of print advertising poorly impacts the advertised company and its sales. Studies also show that this type of advertising affects teenagers as well.

Companies may not realize it, but by advertising men and women in the manner that they do, they are poorly impacting the young generation. When teenagers face so many sexual images, their perception of what is socially acceptable overtakes their understanding of common ethics and morals. According to several studies, “adolescents are the most at-risk group for sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned and unwanted pregnancy” (Moore 37). If teen pregnancy and these diseases are already a problem and are becoming commonplace, why would anyone take the risk to make it even worse than it already is? Additionally, society’s reliance on print advertising “for consumption-related decision making, is positively related to increasing deficits in factual knowledge about the consequences of sexual activity” (41). In other words, teenagers are more commonly basing their opinions and ideas regarding sexual activity on what they see in the media, rather than facts learned from classes or knowledgeable people. Axe published one photo claiming that their cologne “turns nice girls naughty” (Axe). The notion that a boy can make a girl do whatever he wants purely because of the cologne he is wearing is a ridiculous idea that will do nothing but hurt whoever believes it. These advertisements are corrupting the minds of young adults and teenagers and they need to end.

The use of sex appeal in advertising is an inescapable part of American culture. It has become commonplace and is widely accepted as being beneficial to companies who use it. Adding a sexual nature to a photo is proven to increase the interest of most people who view the photo. However, sexualized advertising has gone too far. The appeal of a print advertisement decreases at a certain point. The risqué nature of the photo, especially if nudity is involved, turns off consumers from the product and even the company associated with it. It also becomes detrimental to the young adults and teenagers who view the over-sexualized photos. Those types of photos can alter their understanding of sexual activity in a highly negative manner. All of these downsides to today’s over-sexualized advertising far outweigh the limited benefits that companies may enjoy if they exploit men and women in their print advertisements.

Works Cited

Axe Body Spray by Axe. Advertisement. 2 July 2012. Print.

Bartz, Bianca. “Dolce & Gabbana Gets Overly Sexual in New Controversial Ads.” Trend Hunter Marketing. Trend Hunter Inc., 8 Aug 2007. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Beautifully Invisible. “Controversy: Lara Stone for Calvin Klein 2010- Gang Rape or Fashion?.” Beautifully Invisible. N.p., 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

Cheye. “Ads.” Blogger. Google, 4 Feb 2011. Web. 23 Nov 2013.

Clemente, Shannon CDT B-3 ’14. Assistance given to author at the West Point Writing Center. CDT Clemente and I discussed the overall structure of my essay. We talked about the prompt and the best way to organize my essay in order to make it more conversational, as the prompt requires. She suggested alternating between my side of the argument and the opposing argument. My final essay is structured in a similar manner. West Point, NY, 12 November 2013.

G. Sylvia. “Sexy New Mentos Look We Have Gum Print Ads”. Great-Ads. Great-Ads. 28 Aug 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Hagar, Matt CDT G-2 ’16. Assistance given to author at the West Point Writing Center. CDT Hagar and I discussed the best way to incorporate more details into my essay. I was concerned about wordiness and basically repeating the same thing over and over again. He helped me work out methods to add in additional details and examples without making the essay seem repetitive. CDT Hagar also suggested I attach some of the photos that I referenced in my paper, so the reader can view them and better understand the point I am trying to make. West Point, NY, 13 November 2013.

Moore, Jesse, Mary Anne Raymond, John Mittelstaedt and John Tanner Jr.. “Age and Consumer Socialization Agent Influences on Adolescents’ Sexual Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior: Implications for Social Marketing Initiatives and Public Policy.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 21.1 (2002): 37-52. Print.

PETA. “Australia’s Sexiest Model Earns Her Wings in Alluring Anti-Fur Ad”. People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA Asia-Pacific. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Peterson, Robert and Roger Kerin. “The Female Role in Advertisements: Some Experimental Evidence.” Journal of Marketing 41.4 (1977): 59-63. Print.

Severn, Jessica, George Belch and Michael Belch. “The Effects of Sexual and Non-Sexual Advertising Appeals and Information Level on Cognitive Processing and Communication Effectiveness.” Journal of Advertising 19.1 (1990): 14-22. Print.

Snow, Alexander CDT C-4, ’17. Assistance given to author. Verbal assistance. CDT Snow worked with me on my examples. He helped me to identify where I could expand on my examples more. He also commented on where he thought I could use more commentary before or after quotes, and which parts of my essay were lacking in details. West Point, NY, 22 November 2013.

Tom Ford Fragrance Campaign by Tom Ford. Advertisement. 2007. Print.

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