There's a world of difference between sex and sexism in advertising


Originally published on The Conversation

Advertising and sex are two of the oldest professions in the world. Indeed, one of the earliest uses of advertising was to advertise sexual services; prostitutes in Ancient Greece carved ads into the soles of their sandals so that their footprints read: “Follow me”.

Sex and sexism, however, are different things. One is fun and most people do it at some time in their lives; the other is offensive and should never be done at all. But if recent events – from Eddie McGuire to Steve Price – are any indication, it seems sexism, like porn, is something you only know when you see it.

If you need to know how this plays out in advertising, the award-winning Game of Balls ad is sex-in-advertising. The Ultratune ads are sexism in advertising, as is the campaign using pre-teen models in sexualised poses to advertise dancewear.

Given that we do not seem to know what the difference is, let’s start by defining our terms:

  • Sex is an act (no further explanation forthcoming but you can look it up on the internet if you wish). Of course, there are additional meanings, but for the purpose of this article we will use the verb not the noun.

  • Sexism is the assumption that one sex is inferior to the other and/or prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender and/or insistence on conformity to a sexually stereotyped role.

Sex is fun so it gets attention … and advertisers know that attention is the first step in advertising effectiveness.

The axiom “sex sells” has long standing in “adland”. And if only because something old must surely be correct, it is consistently relied on to create ads that sell.

However, we have found numerous studies showing that, in general, sex does not sell. The only exception to this is when the product directly relates to sex and sexual function, including enhancing desirability.

An irrelevant sexual appeal distracts from rather than supports consumer engagement with the advertised product, service or message. If you get people’s attention through sexual references, they will continue to think about sex because it is more fun than shoes, cars etc. But they are not thinking about purchasing your product; they are thinking about sex.

The assumption that “attention equals purchase” drives many award-seeking creative agencies. Any attention is deemed a positive outcome and is called “earned media”, because the publicity gained will count towards the success metrics in terms of space (calculated in terms of the amount of space you would have paid for if it had been an ad). An ad that creates public outcry is assumed to be good.

But not all publicity is good publicity, and sometimes offended consumers vote with their wallets.

Another advertising appeal that works to gain attention is humour. Humour appeals are designed to evoke positive emotions. Hence, many ads combine sex and humour to maximise the fun value of the attention-getting devices and thereby increase positive brand associations.

Humour is most effective when the sender and receiver possess a shared frame of reference and understand the “rules” of the communication. Without a shared frame of reference, the scope for misunderstanding is increased and the recipient may not “get” the humorous intent.

This partially explains why advertising such as the most complained about ads of 2016 often combine sex and humour appeals. The combination of appeals earns attention, but if you are not the primary target market you may be offended.

In advertising, the right target market will “get it” and the wrong target market is effectively excluded from the communication. And being told to lighten up makes the offended recipient, rather than the offensive sender, responsible for the misaligned communication.

See, for example, the growing popularity of the “non-apology apology”: “I am sorry if you were offended”. A review of the responses to complaints made to the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) will demonstrate mastery of this type of apology.

If the measure of an ad’s success is “earned media”, a complaint does not hurt the advertiser. Even if the complaint is upheld – which is statistically unlikely – the outcome is withdrawal of the offending ad only after it has done its job of creating free publicity. It is often only when there is also potential for a commercial loss that reparation is attempted.

It may be unsurprising that the ads that are most complained about to the ASB, a self-regulatory industry board, are predominantly dismissed. But how can a standards board that claims “40 years of meeting community standards” be so out of step with Australian standards?

The answer may lie in a 2013 report for the board in which exploitative and degrading advertising was explored. The issue of sexist advertising was not covered (the word sexist is mentioned once).

The code of ethics that the ASB upholds requires that for a complaint to be upheld, the ad must be clearly discriminatory, exploitative or degrading, gratuitously violent, present sex, sexuality and nudity without sensitivity to the relevant audience, use obscene or strong language, or present unsafe behaviour when it comes to health and safety. Since the code does not explicitly cover sexism, the board cannot act on sexism, regardless of the number of complaints made.

The board’s attempts to defend itself show that there is societal harm in conflating sex with sexism. The ASB clearly doesn’t get it when it comes to the difference or why it matters.

The act of sex is usually not harmful, but sexism always is. The lack of recognition of sexism in all its guises – humorous, covert or overt – colludes with the system-wide culture that permits and therefore encourages behaviours such as we have seen recently in the media.

Attitudes and behaviours many consider sexist can be invisible to those with a vested interest in maintaining their privileged positions. The perpetrator simply does not “see” their sexism as sexism.

Sexism is not always obviously violent, exploitative or degrading. It can be unintended or disguised innocently as humour, but it is always insidious, offensive to and exclusionary of its victims.

Sex may gain attention, but sexism will not build a 21st-century brand. And perpetrators of the latter cannot be relied on to know when they are being sexist, unless told consistently, clearly and often. So the ASB must review its code to specifically include sexism and bring it into alignment with broader 21st-century community standards.

And it’s time the advertising industry went back to ad school and found a new measure of success beyond attention-seeking. Sexism in or out of advertising is never “just a joke”, it is offensive – and everyone needs to see that.


Authored by:

Professor of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Associate professor, Monash University

Lecturer in Media and Communication, RMIT University

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  • commented 2016-07-28 18:36:47 +1000
    The real problem is that advertising, like tv commercials really affects our way of thinking. It’s really said that the majority of ads/commercials puts stress on female sexuality.
    Thanks for sharing this article!

    Helen from

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