Justin D. Clegg
Comms 300 Media Law
The Ethical Dilemma of Sexual Appeal in Advertising
The old adage “sex-sells” is an assumption that has caused an ethical dilemma in a fast moving world filled with media consumers and advertising. The use of sexual appeal in advertising has increased dramatically in the United States within the last decade. Its misuse and pervasiveness surround us every day and elicit powerful emotions by individuals of all ages, both male and female. Sex in advertising has been around for years and continues to drive media messages in society simply because it works. Ads with sexual appeal are more attention getting, arousing and memorable. A single male college student is far more likely to pay attention to an advertisement that carries a “sexy” message in it than one that does not. The purpose of this paper is to respond to the question, “how ethical is it for advertisements to use sexual appeal as a means of marketing and selling consumer goods?” In this research paper, I will discuss the ethical dilemma of sexual appeal in advertising and argue that sex should not sell.
Before introducing any type of appeal into an advertisement, it is important to know and evaluate the audience that will be receiving the message. This is the job of the advertising agent. Advertising has a way of drawing people in to entice feelings and motivate them to action and even changes in behavior. Using various approaches of emotion including fear, humor, rationality, scarcity and sex appeal, advertisers ensure that their targeted audience receives their message in the most effective way possible. Whether or not the consumer is aware of the advertiser’s motive, it is sufficient to say that the advertiser keys in on the two basic principles: what they want to say and who they want to say it to.
After a target audience has been identified, the agency will decide on what ads to execute. Research has shown that although sexual appeals in brand advertising are attention getting, they are not as effective because they do not always motivate the consumer to take action but instead only entertain. (Reichert, Heckler, and Jackson, 2001, p. 18). Research Sex in advertising appeals to teens and grabs their attention (or at least the attention of their hormones) and leads them to a social desire to feel beautiful, sensuous and attractive. Of all the mediums available to feature sexual appeal, advertisers focus mostly on print ads found in magazines and on billboards. Brand campaigns like Calvin and Klein Jeans are recognized by their high level of sensuality as teens pose semi-nude in provocative positions; often wearing only jeans. To the eye of the advertiser, a campaign like this might be perceived as a successful photo shoot of high artistic value and ultimately a success. On the other hand, a conservative stay at home mother might look at the ad and feel invaded, harassed and objectified. As a mother, it would only be natural instinct to guard those feelings from her own children.
From a consumer perspective, teenagers are the most attractive market segment for advertisers. Between the ages of 13 and 17, teenagers live off of “disposable incomes” that are generated by their parents and part time jobs. With a small but continuous cash flow and an “I answer to no one” attitude, they become the perfect target for media and advertising influence. On average, teens spend about $100 a week on optional products that aren’t needs (Zolo, 2004). Teens are powerful allies to advertisers because not only are they highly susceptible to being influenced, but they also influence their friends and parents into making purchases. This results in billions of dollars spent each year on advertising towards this market segment (Linn, 2004). During the developmental stages of self-discovery, self esteem and puberty, teenagers develop brand loyalty which defines who they are. To my father, 501 brand jeans...
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