Sex still sells, but should brands use it?


We Are Social has launched The Sex Report, looking at the relationship between sex, the social community and brands. For a peek behind the covers and to request the report in full, visit our teaser site here

Off the back of this report, published this article by me about the complexities of brands using sex in advertising due to the rise of social mediaThey’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it in full below.

Sex report

It’s a sign of the times that Playboy is to stop publishing images of naked women because its owners feel the internet has made nudity outdated.

Playboy, like most of print publishing, has found itself overtaken by the advent of online – sex and nudity is as freely accessible on the net as news and sport, making the top shelf pretty much obsolete. But for brands using sex to sell (in most cases in the form of tasteful titillation), the rise of social brings added complexity.

For as long as advertising has been used, marketers have turned to sexualised imagery and content as a way of enticing consumers and building their brands. UK consumers will remember Häagen Dazs and Wonderbra, which built global awareness and drove huge sales on the back of ‘nudge-and-wink’ imagery that forged a direct connection with our erogenous zones.


These pre-internet brands used traditional media to get their messages to drive sales. Now, with the advent of mass digital channels, communication can be accessed and, crucially, shared by a higher number of consumers more quickly than ever.

Sex and the power of social media – that has to be a winning combination, right?

Goodbye, Boys?
Actually, for the most part, the ‘Hello, boys’ days of overtly sexualised imagery in marketing are at an end. Today, experts, commentators, and even press, tend to slam brands that focus too heavily on sex as a sales tool. And we’re not exactly begging for more, if our social conversations are anything to go by. We Are Social’s analysis of all UK conversations on Twitter over the past three months found that there had been over 450m in total, but, excluding pornography spam and the like, only 352,000 (around 0.07 percent), were about sex.

Where people in the UK do talk about sex, it tends to be with humour (for example complaints about the neighbours being too loud or sexual ads appearing on TV or online while they were watching/surfing with their parents), or from people sharing news stories; #sex was the most popular hashtag associated with sex conversations, the second most used was #news.

Body Of Evidence
Despite this, sex still sells. Take Calvin Klein’s most recent billboard campaign featuring racy images overlaid with text messages about everything from nude selfies to threesomes. The campaign gained traction among tweeters, who mentioned it more than 122,000 times worldwide, with far more positive than negative sentiment. The infamous Protein World ‘beach body ready’ ads in the UK may have caused innumerable public outcries, but they also reportedly led to £1m in extra revenue in only four days.


Across the Atlantic in the US, Groupon made a big splash on social media by ‘innocently’ playing up the sexual innuendo around its Banana Bunker product. It even filmed employees reading out their favourite online comments, netting over 40,000 YouTube views.

Long-Term Damage
We may be unwilling to talk openly about sex on social media, but it seems brands can still generate revenue and engagement by doing so. The question then becomes whether they should – at a time when so many brands are focusing on ‘doing good’ in their marketing, do they have a responsibility not to promote content that plays on people’s insecurities? And if they do, are they doing long-term damage to their brand?

For a few brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, the answer has been a resounding yes. It has always relied on highly sexualised imagery (both in ads and in its stores) and has been slated on Twitter, with thousands of negative comments in the past year alone, to the point where it has now been forced to change its approach to focus more on products.

For most brands, there’s no easy answer. Maybe in part this is because sex in real life is so much harder to contain and market than ad-man approved sex. It comes in all shapes and sizes, any flavour and colour you can conceive. The more access to digital sex we’ve acquired, the less brands are using sex to sell on digital media. Consumers have arguably become more discerning about sex in marketing, appreciating clever and humorous uses, and rejecting what was once typical sexual marketing. Smart brands are recognising this and adapting their content.

Smart, Sassy And Funny
Perhaps it was always so. Häagen Dazs and Wonderbra didn’t capture the imagination of consumers because they used the most explicit images. They worked so well because they were smart, sassy and funny. It’s inconceivable that many brands could be more explicit than the imagery that is available online, and nor would they want to be.

Brands like Durex have to use sex because it’s an integral part of their product but, in truth, most brands have to work harder with their online marketing to solicit an audience that has grown up in an environment of sexualised imagery. For a brand to use sex in its marketing, consumers insist on a bit of thought. Diesel’s SFW XXX campaign, even though seven years old, still represents a high point in using sex in marketing with its use of humour. More recently, Rankin’s Coco de Mer short was demonstrably adult in theme and showed a commitment to craft rather than a cheap thrill.

Sex remains a powerful theme for brands, but one that they must use with care. Today’s consumers are more sophisticated and knowledgeable in this area than ever, which can leave brands a laughing stock if they miscue. And when it comes to sex, no one wants to miss the mark.