Prisoner of Sex in Advertising

Edward C. Strong, Tulane University
[ to cite ]:
Edward C. Strong (1979) ,"Prisoner of Sex in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 78-81.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 78-81


Edward C. Strong, Tulane University

At the risk of offending my literate friends in the Association and alienating everyone else now gratuitously identified as illiterate, I will point out the heritage of the title of this piece. In 1971, Norman Mailer felt himself sufficiently moved by the activities of the Millet, Friedan, et. al., to make a clear ex position of his position in regard to men, women, sex and liberation. This is to say that his exposition was clear to me, although it may have fallen far short of clarifying things for the sisterhood. I contemplate a similar fate for my own efforts with an equanimity approaching that of Mailer. In any event, those desirous of tracing the lineal descendancy of this article may find its roots in Prisoner of Sex--and judge the sound ness of its parentage thereby.

This article should serve as a hot, wet kiss in the ear of ACR, delivered with all the sincerity and feeling which the recipient will allow me to offer, a perhaps vain attempt to rekindle some old understanding that we all have had in our fumbling dealings with the subject of sex. Perhaps, if this session were entitled "Humor in Advertising," we could expect to laugh a little while perusing the papers or during the discussion. Why, then, in this session do we apparently have no expectation of arousal or even the more tender emotions that allay themselves with sex? The papers are cold and rational things, with only one tiny wink of a leer, and a voyeuristic one at that, showing through. This comes in the next-to-last paragraph preceding the conclusions of the Wilson and Moore piece. Following a thorough, but academic, review of theoretical notions which may be useful in the academic study of sex in advertising and a cataloguing of empirical findings on the subject, we are suddenly faced with a reference to "a measurement device for female sexual arousal called photoplethysmographic probe." What a name! What intricacies of stainless steel, wiring, and pneumatic adjusters it conjures up? Just to own one would remove a researcher's work from the ordinary and deliver it to a more convoluted plane. And the applications! What experiments couldn't be de signed with such a device to keep track of the subconscious reactions?

Not that Wilson and Moore are being lauded for this momentary lapse into titillation; I am merely singling out what is the only place, for me, in these papers about the subject of sex in which the subject is momentarily suffused with meaning. I would go so far as to conjecture that Wilson and Moore have incurred the wrath of Roberts and Koggan with their reference to the instrumentation of the erotic laboratory. What rejoicing, after all, should accompany the metrification of the arousal of the female if this signifies another foray by the male to subject those of the feminine persuasion to the indignity of unequal treatment. Even the unliberated male is left to wonder whether or not the male equivalent of the photoplethysmographic probe lies throbbing in the dark recesses of an inventor's mind, or perhaps, in autoclaved pristine glory, it awaits the magic of a dense polysyllabic name before its introduction to an adoring public.

The lack of sex in academic treatments of sex may strike the reader as entirely appropriate, and, the author added sardonically, in keeping with some of our more cherished academic traditions. And while my stated goal is to bring about arousal, it is not my desire to stir the passions with pages of steamy prose. The point is that from my point of view, all of the papers for this session seem to lack a sensitivity about the size and scope of their concern. Sex is a huge and mythy issue, not one to be dealt with through experimentation on 142 university students, nor through a review of theoretical constructs that may assist in explaining its effectiveness in advertising, nor by reviewing the role models portrayed in a handful of advertisements. Sex in advertising is a pervasive thing, a large lolling maja of an issue, and nibbling at the earlobe or sucking pensively at a toe is merely toying with the lady. Let us be serious in our intentions, be they good or evil.

Sex in advertising cannot be contained by some simple definition, circumscribed to some set of variables concerning, for example, the graphic explicitness of illustrations. One would have thought that Freud had been sufficient to make everyone aware of the extent to which sex permeates our characters and our actions. And if Freud had been sufficient for mankind in general, then Dichter would have sufficed in marketing to alert us to our more unconscious consumptions. His sexual interpretation of the problems with Saran Wrap comes to mind. In her housewifely role, a homemaker's concern with the well-being of her family extends through feeding them to the management of the process of cooking and raw materials procurement and maintenance. According to motivational research, the homemaker contemplating the contents of the refrigerator is disturbed by the naked ness of foodstuffs covered with clear plastic wrap. This nakedness is experienced on several levels; there are the individual's own feelings about nakedness (do nudists use Saran Wrap more willingly than persons less used to dealing with things in the buff?); there are the concerns about lack of protection for the items themselves; and, through the process by which they are to serve the needs of the family, the lack of protection for the family itself. Sex in the Refrigerator! The Secret Lives of Peeled Vegetables and Yesterday's Leftovers! Yes, this is ludicrous, yet at some level it is a dead serious indication of the extent to which sex, and in particular our own individual manner cc coping with sex, is one of the few continuing undercurrents of our existences. Let us recognize, then, that when we speak of sex in advertising we speak of all advertising and all advertisements; not just Joe Namath or Pete Rose being paid enough to make a laughingstock of masculinity, but the less obvious ones as well.


Users of the English language are, I have felt for some time, unfortunately vague about gender. While other languages helpfully provide a sex assignment for objects, about the only one that we seem to have acquired from the English (in their mania for the sea) is that a ship is feminine. Hardly enough to develop a keen sense of gender. I would contend that the gender of advertising is primarily female. By this I do not mean that an advertisement is simply a feminine object, but rather that the intent and behavior of an advertisement is basically feminine. Advertising is not the kind of a tool which one can use with immediate effect; its objectives are, by and large, for the longer term. To achieve their effects, advertisements comport themselves to insinuate themselves into the minds of the viewer, they cajole, they remind, they seduce, and, at times, they even nag.

I have no doubt that I now face two sorts of hostility; one from readers who find it difficult to grasp what on earth I mean by the gender of advertising, and another from readers who feel that I have done the ladies an in justice by my characterization of their behaviors, an other chauvinist beating his drum. To the first group, I offer this further explanation: In the classic economist's view, the role of advertising is to provide factual information about a product in order to enable the consumer to make rational decisions in achieving satisfaction of his need to equate marginal utilities. This view of advertising envisions a masculine advertisement: A blunt statement of fact, a take-it-or-leave-it, no-frills, unsubtle approach. As far as I can tell, this type of advertising has only existed in the minds of economists.

To the other group, I can only offer cold comfort. Why the Creator stopped at only two sexes, I will never know; Admiral Byrd seemed to show much better judgment in his plans for surviving at the South Pole in his insistence that there be either three people in the party or one person alone. Nevertheless, here we are, with only two sexes and their permutations, and I am told by a female biologist of some standing, there are basic physiological and psychological differences between the two which make my statements about the comportment of the female acceptable in a general way.

The notion of the gender of advertising is useful in the consideration of Sex in Advertising. Even after re moving innuendo and any graphic representation, we are left with the notion that basically there is a gender, a comportment of advertising which can be characterized as based upon sex. It cannot be legislated away nor can it, in all likelihood, be empirically observed. And in pursuit of its objectives it will put as many strings to its bow as are required, including the use of sex it self; Diana the Huntress portrayed with one breast bared.


Our concerns with Sex in Advertising may stem from several interests, only some of which make any sense from the point of view of a marketer. I will review some of these under the headings of Advertisements as Erotica; Controlling Sex in Advertising; and How (Sex in) Advertising Works.

Advertisements as Erotica

The Wilson and Moore article, as noted above, makes reference to the borrowing of equipment from the researchers on erotica to conduct research on advertising, and in a less explicit way the Sciglimpaglia, Belch, and Cain article's selection of stimuli tends in a similar direction with the inclusion of a "suggestive" stimulus. The latter article, of course, attempts to document how variation in the stimulus affects the persuasive ability of the advertisement. From what I have seen of advertising, the level of explicit sexual stimulation afforded us in our daily reading and viewing is abysmally low. If we depended upon advertising to arouse us, the race would soon die out.

If the researcher wants to stick it out with erotica, he seems well advised not to try to find it in advertising, and I think we can save ourselves a lot of grief and studies with ambiguous outcomes if we leave that approach alone. On the other hand, attending to my contention about the gender of advertising, there would seem to be a lot more implicit sexual stimulation that goes on in advertising than explicit stimulation. But this kind of stimulation does not bring on heavy breathing and is going to require much more than imaginative gadgetry in its documentation. Therefore, it seems to me quite justifiable on our parts to turn our backs on the erotic laboratory in our further efforts.

Controlling Sex in Advertising

The other day in the hallway I came across a student showing a professor a cartoon related to a paper she was doing for the Business Policy class. Knowing that the chief executive of the company depicted in the case would be visiting and might read some of the papers, I suggested that she not attach the cartoon to her paper, as she apparently was going to do since the cartoon had been carefully mounted on a sheet of paper. She replied that she definitely would not and that it had only been mounted on paper to cover up the back of the cartoon, which had come from Playboy. Interested in this old-fashioned display of a sense of modesty, I asked her whether she really felt that she had to protect her fellow graduate students to that extent. To which she quickly replied, "Oh, no, but we do have to protect the professors."

Controlling sex in advertising appears to have two principal directions. One is the control of advertising in such a way that specific audiences are protected from potentially harmful exposure. The other is the control of sexual content so that it conforms to certain standards, standards usually proposed by an individual or group of like-thinking individuals. I have sympathy with the goals of the former type of control, and considerable antipathy towards the latter type of control.

The protection of audiences from things they should not see is, as a concept, a highly desirable end. I think we are all aware, however, of the difficulty in defining what is and what is not appropriate for a given audience, and, once that is achieved, determining the ex tent to which dissemination to the public must be cur tailed to ensure that the specific audience is not in peril of being exposed. As individuals, we should all have opinions on what these definitions are. I say we should have these opinions since the Supreme Court re quires us to have them, given the current ruling on pornography which puts the responsibility for this definition in the hands of the relevant community.

But as researchers trying to discover ways of assisting the empirical definition of these things, we cannot afford to have opinions, indeed, we must protect ourselves against these opinions. The diligent researcher armed not only with hypotheses but with beliefs as well will generally prove his beliefs through his research efforts. One of the most eloquent statements of this fact was shown to me in the form of a declination by the Stanford Research Institute of an invitation to submit a research proposal concerning the determination of what educational philosophy was the most effective. The director of the Institute said, quite simply, that the re search was impossible to conduct. Any effort to deter mine the answer in an objective sense would merely cloak the subjective proclivities of the researchers with scientific respectability.

We should not confuse our beliefs and our research out comes; if we wish to persuade others of our point of view, then let us by all means become active and muster whatever support we can for our views. But we must not couple this with our research activities because our objectivity is gone and our results are worse than contaminated. Researchers should not be activists, and activists should not do research. Or at the very least, activists should have the common decency not to expect anyone else to listen to the research outcomes.

The second type of control, control of sexual content so that it conforms to certain standards, is to me as meaningless an exercise as I can imagine. One of the sources of this opinion is related to some observations made in the course of living outside our country. In France I was struck by the extent of the use of unclothed females in advertising products in women's magazines. The illustrations were quite gorgeous, and I need not hide from you the fact that my readership of these magazines did not stem entirely from a desire to know what French womanhood was thinking. I am convinced that by whatever measure is employed, French women's magazines are much more explicit in their uncoverage of the female form, that the magazines are sexier than their US counterparts.

What makes this curious and also relevant to the idea of controlling the sex content of advertising is that in the US, we had had a research experience that suggested that such advertising would be found offensive and would not work. In A1 Sawyer's dissertation research involving a laboratory experiment, he used ads in a large number of product categories, with several brands in each product category. In each case, one of the brands selected was chosen for its difference from the advertisements for the other brands. One of the product categories was ladies' foundation garments, and the "common" advertisements could be likened to the Sears catalog representation of the brands; stock photos of nondescript models wearing the products, about as arousing as a naked department-store manikin. The uncommon ad was for Bali bras, and was a very lovely and evocative photo, in soft focus and shot through textured glass in black and white, of a young lady, from the waist up apparently naked, demurely holding her arms in front of her breasts. When I say it was evocative, I do not mean provocative; Al and I admired the illustration and thought it was done in excellent taste, and there were no doubts about including it in the series. Compared to the dreary explicitness of the other brands' ads, we thought it would prove much more palatable over several repetitions than the other ads.

Making a long story slightly shorter, no other ad drew the wrath of our sample of housewives in a manner in any way comparable to the Bali ad. The spontaneous recall of the ad was very high, and was usually coupled with very derogatory comments about the sexual content of the ad. The study concerned itself with repetition effects, and the situation worsened as the repetitions increased; respondents tended to exaggerate considerably the number of times that they were shown that ad.

Based on these reactions, I feel free to conjecture that US housewives would find the advertising in French women's magazines highly offensive. And yet the French do not. Cultural relativism is, of course, not a new thing, but the point here is that control of sexual content in advertising is very much a culture-bound concept. To the extent to which we wish to mire our habits and attitudes in some specific mold and hold it constant, then we should be willing to control advertising's content, including its sexual content. To the extent that we want it to follow the modalities and mores of our culture, it should be set free. Advertising's content does not, will not, and cannot lead the shaping of our culture; it follows, a cautious step behind the avant-garde, taking careful aim at the willingness of the great unwashed masses to sustain its content. And advertising is successful at this; why else should one-third of Bob Hope's and Johnny Carson's monologues be devoted to the quips about brands, products, and advertising?

If a more modern example of the cultural differences is desired, it is only necessary to note that in the US, lingerie manufacturers are prohibited from showing their wares on live models in TV commercials. Compare this to the French ad, run last year, in which a waiter enters a hotel room occupied by two young ladies to lay out their room-service breakfast. The girls, clad only in panties, whisk in and out of the room as the hapless fellow tries to control his roving eyes, only to find them riveted on two eggs, sunnyside up, as one of the laughing girls finishes putting on her brassiere. The commercial is a thing of great beauty, humor, and taste; and it would not work at all in the US, even if live models could be used.

This is the source of my antipathy towards the suggestion that there is some way in which women "should" be portrayed in advertising. When our culture is ready for it, women in advertisements will all be liberated and successful; when our culture is ready for it, husbands will cease to bumble, the number of cowboys represented in advertisements will be proportional to the number of cowboys in the general population and, perhaps, Pete Rose will slug that sappy female reporter in the mouth and regain his manhood.

How (Sex in) Advertising Works

Earlier in this paper, I chided the Sciglimpaglia, Belch, and Cain paper and the Wilson and Moore paper for their eagerness in co-opting the methodology of the erotic laboratory. But these two papers do focus attention on the more important issues of how sexual content works in the context of advertising. The two papers provide a broad range of theoretical background and some empirical data which help to focus our attention on the design and execution of effective advertising utilizing sexual content. As the reader will by now have detected, in my own view the issue of sex in advertising is so broad that I feel that these papers and research efforts only begin to tell us what we would like to know and apparently cannot resist asking about sex in advertising.

In their reviews of the literature and their own empirical content, these papers clearly indicate that response to sex in advertising is not uniform across the population. Projecting from these findings to what I would expect will continue to be the outcome of re searchers in sex in advertising, that is, more and more findings that subsets of the population based on sex and age of the respondents, other demographic factors such as education, and perhaps even psychological makeup, differ greatly from one another in their reaction to the use of specific sexual stimuli in advertising, I foresee the great problem in this area being that of drawing useful generalities.

Returning to earlier arguments, the problem that faces us is that sex is a primary part of the psychological baggage that we carry around with us. Our attitudes to wards, abilities to cope with, and acceptance of sex play a dominant role in our willingness to acknowledge and receive messages in which sex plays an important, or even a peripheral part. This, of course, is the sort of situation in which sexual innuendo is a highly successful ploy: The message presented in such a way that those most likely to be offended have ample opportunity to selectively avoid reception of the offending portion of the message.

Here we arrive at the critical point of my argument. However it works, advertising is not a simple stimulus. Large, obscenely large, sums of money are spent to as sure that the creative work on a campaign creates a richness of image and association well beyond that of a fuzzily reproduced Polaroid in the back pages of Hustler or a pre-Castro Cuban porno flick. To isolate, in this wealth of imagery and associations, those elements which arouse one person is a formidable task: To presume to do so for the population at large is foolhardy. Re search on sex in advertising will lead us soon to the same point we have reached with respect to fear appeal in advertising, although in my own belief fear is a much simpler phenomenon to deal with than sex. That is, that we will find that the sexier the message, the greater the effect, up to the point where anxiety be gins to impair the reception of the message. And that segments can be identified whose anxieties are greater than others. We will be led to say, "Sex works, de pending on the audience, the product, and so forth." This may sound as though I am very pessimistic about the chances of research in this area bringing us a lot of new insights in the foreseeable future. That possibility I leave up to you as, in the fatherly words of the Hawaiian cannibal, "One man's meat is another man's poi, son."

Two words of caution about null hypotheses seem in order. Expect differences. The greatest surprise for me would be the observation that a general truth had been tapped. Do not be satisfied with showing us differences significant at some level. Look for the unifying factors and the underlying generality. These are the things that will assist us in our understanding and our applications: these are the findings that would make our brand of beast superior to the cunning and conniving creative director who has long known what we have merely begun to suspect.

E. B. White said:

Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Good things can come from the dissection process--there's a special providence in the fall of a frog--but those of us who love the living thing must register in this quiet way our small measure of dismay at the dissection of sex in advertising. We call for artistry and a sharp blade, fearing butchery.