When Sex Doesn’t Sell

The cliché that sex sells is so common that many of us don’t even think about it anymore. Sexy images are used to attract attention and convince us that we can buy something and either be more sexy or be attractive to the scantily clad person (usually, but not always a woman) in the ad. But sometimes, it seems to me that people use sex without really thinking about why they’re doing it.

For example, PETA has been using sexual imagery to try to convince people to stop wearing fur. And while I understand their desire to do what they can to catch people’s attention, I’m not convinced that their use of nudity has the effect that they want.

For example, Sasha Grey is well-known for her enthusiastic enjoyment of edgy, rough, and button-pushing sex. She also performed in films such as Sasha Grey Superslut, Gang Bang #5, Monster Cock Junkies #5, Fuck For Dollars #3, and Cum Buckets #8. So it seems somewhat ironic to me to have her in an ad with the tagline “too much sex can be a bad thing,” even if the ad is in support of having pets neutered or spayed.

I’ve met and spoken with Sasha Grey and I’m 100% confident that she would agree with me when I say that boundaries are important. She’s definitely not suggesting that there shouldn’t be sexual boundaries. In fact, I’m quite sure that she would say that people should get to define their own boundaries and the problem is when people go past their own comfort zones and limits.

But the fact is, she’s well known for engaging in sexual acts that many people believe go too far. Using someone known for going beyond many people’s comfort zones along with the message “too much sex can be a bad thing” says to me that PETA is going about this rather thoughtlessly. Either Grey’s sexual performances are a bad thing, in which case, they’re contributing to it by using her in the ad, or they’re not, in which case, there’s no reason to use her image like this. And if someone doesn’t know who Sasha Grey is, the whole thing falls even flatter.

Of course, I don’t think it’s really a question of good or bad. I’m simply trying to point out that there’s an inconsistency which makes this ad campaign fall apart. There’s no reason to use a naked porn star in this campaign, and while it may inspire people to look at the ad, I’m not convinced that it’ll do anything to change people’s minds about neutering animals. It’s using sex for the sake of using sex, not because it’s at all relevant to the message.

Another example of this comes from France, where a new promotion to reduce smoking among youth has been generating some controversy.

The tagline at the bottom translates as “to smoke is to be a slave to tobacco” and the NY Times reports that the rather obvious fellatio imagery is causing some backlash.

I think it’s interesting that the campaign’s message rests on the idea that giving a blowjob, especially to an older man, is equivalent to slavery. Of course, some people will look at the ad and see a man forcing a young person to do something that they don’t want to do. And yet, that’s not the only way to look at this image. For example, the man’s hand could be about to gently lovingly caress and stroke the head of the kneeling person.

It’s also worth noting that the vice president of the company that came up with this campaign had this to say:

“The younger you begin to smoke, the stronger the addiction, Mr. de la Fuente said in an interview. “But young people think they’re invincible. They like to flirt with danger. He added that young people saw smoking as a symbol of emancipation, a passage to adulthood and a “transgressive act.

So they’re going to try to reframe smoking as something other than transgressive and a passage to adulthood by linking it with sex? Good luck with that.

Both of these ads are trying to inspire readers to change their behaviors. But both of them miss the point. They both send mixed messages about sex. They both use sex to attract the reader’s attention while simultaneously presenting it as something negative. And they both use images that contradict the messages they they want to send.

It makes me think that the people who come up with these marketing strategies don’t really think about sex all that clearly. Want to catch people’s attention? Add some sex! But when they don’t think about the ways that those sexual messages work, they miss the target. And when that happens, sex doesn’t actually sell.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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