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Industry Contributor 13 May 2021 - 4 min read

Let’s talk about sex and advertising

By Annie Little, Strategy Director - The Royals

For decades, advertising has used sex to sell everything from deodorant to denim jeans and every other unrelated product we could think of. Now we’ve swung the other way, which makes marketing sex-related products a censorship-navigating nightmare.

What you need to know

  • Milkshake-gate was inevitable: we’ve failed to adequately represent sex in comms and advertising.
  • Advertising is finally breaking down less controversial taboos around the female body.
  • And yet, social networks and ad standards explicitly ban reference to pleasure, blacklisting adult brands from their platforms.
  • In an age when we can precisely target relevant audiences in discrete spaces at appropriate moments, brands should be able to positively broach sexual themes instead of falling prey to sweeping regulation.

Sex and advertising. A relationship with so much baggage that an entire Wikipedia page is devoted to it. It’s taken a milkshake-flavoured PR disaster to get us talking about how to address sex in the public sphere, but the advertising industry is just as guilty of misrepresenting sex as the government in question.

We’re not harking back to the Mad Men era. Sex remains a taboo subject that swings so wildly between the poles of exploitation and suppression that we’re yet to build a positive platform around pleasure.

It’s 2021. It’s time to get real about sex.

From the dark ages of objectification to the age of censorship

This industry lives with the adage that sex sells... anything. For decades, products with absolutely no connection to sex were propelled into the world via the male gaze. Spray deodorant, fast food, cans of energy drink and denim jeans, all unnecessarily adorned with a backdrop of female bodies.

Having woken up to the misogyny lurking within this sales tactic, we’ve dramatically swung the other way. Social networks and ad standards explicitly ban reference to pleasure, making blanket rulings that blacklist adult brands and content of a suggestive nature (#freethenipple) from their platforms.

As important conversations around safety lead today’s narrative on sex, we’re rightly empowered and informed – but little space has been given to the joyful voice. 

Censorship is interlaced with fear: if we censor because sex can’t be confidently represented without fear of offence or exploitation, it means the wrong voices are talking. 

Censorship breeds fear: if we’re only shown that we’re either an object or a potential victim, sex becomes something to fear in itself. Sex is inherently bad. Sex is inherently dangerous.

Comms need to catch up with culture

It’s glaringly obvious to state that we’re sexual beings. 130 million of us make daily visits to Pornhub. More of us have purchased the Fifty Shades series than Harry Potter on Amazon. Yet it’s rare that we’re respectfully addressed as sophisticated sexual subjects, particularly women.

We’re seeing more realistic sexual dynamics embraced across culture, helping to promote a more positive relationship with sex for all. In streaming, Normal People’s Marianne and Connell tugged heartstrings with quiet, stumbling encounters; I May Destroy You explored a candid tangle of desire and consent. Victoria’s Secret angels have stepped aside for Rihanna’s fearless and fun Fenty x Savage crew. Sidelined voices and bodies are taking their places on the stage.

At the core of the debate is the normalisation of female pleasure. Consistently overlooked from biblical times to the present day – the key female erogenous zone, aka the clitoris, was only mapped to its full extent after the moon. It’s a stigma that’s only just starting to be reckoned with. No wonder, when far less controversial taboos around the female body have only recently been broken in advertising. Finally.

2015: the sight of women sweating during sport (This Girl Can, Sport England)

2017: menstrual blood represented in red (Blood Normal, Bodyform)

2018: hair shown on female bodies (Project Body Hair, Billie)

2019: proud presentation of postpartum bodies (Body Proud Mums, Mothercare)

2021: depicting real breasts and breastfeeding (Stream of Lactation, Fridamom)

Next: sexual pleasure.


The irony of media restriction

In an age when we can precisely target relevant audiences in discrete spaces at appropriate moments, brands should be able to positively broach sexual themes instead of falling prey to sweeping regulation. Ironically, media platforms with more advanced targeting capabilities are often the most hardline. 

When launching Wild Secrets’ recent Know Me campaign, which aimed to help close the orgasm gap, we had to navigate the Facebook network’s declaration that ads “must not focus on sexual pleasure” or promote the use of adult products. A tough one for sex toy brands like Dame and award-winning Osé, however empowering, pleasure-positive or wellness-oriented they may be.

On Spotify I can listen to WAP on repeat, with so many explicit lyrics that the BBC’s radio version is ‘mainly dings and beeps’. I can watch Lil Nas X riding Satan into hell on YouTube, or follow any of the thousands of sex-positive influencers on Instagram, but the adjacent advertising space must remain sin-free and sterilised.

Time for sex and advertising’s third wave

Moving on from objectification and censorship of sex in advertising, we owe it to society to deliver an era of better representation. All voices need a platform to more responsibly talk about sex and pleasure, and we all benefit from presenting a balanced conversation around this completely normal part of life. 

If advertising has had the power to manipulate the conversation around sex since inception, perhaps it’s time to use that power for the better.

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Annie Little, Strategy Director

The Royals

Annie Little is a Strategy Director at the Royals in Melbourne, with roots in London. She has worked across a colourful assortment of brands focusing on service and FMCG, and is passionate about helping brands to carve out their place in culture.

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