Why Sex In Advertising Doesn’t Sell Like It Used To

Here’s why so-called babev­er­tis­ing has declin­ing influ­ence – and what’s next.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Babev­er­tis­ing has a long and sto­ried his­to­ry in the Super Bowl, includ­ing recent high­lights like Bar Refaeli smooching a nerd for GoDad­dy, Kate Upton blow­ing bub­bles for Mer­cedes, and Char­lotte McK­in­ney mak­ing puns for Carl’s Jr. But Super Bowl 50 was dif­fer­ent. In fact, there was a con­spic­u­ous absence of babes, oth­er than per­haps Helen Mir­ren, or Ryan Reynolds and Drake. Why?


Mirren’s rel­a­tive babe­wor­thi­ness is a debate for anoth­er time and place, but it is worth not­ing her Super Bowl debut came at an intrigu­ing cul­tur­al moment in the U.S.

Hillary For America

Amer­i­cans are clos­er to hav­ing a woman in the White House than they’ve ever been before. This has inspired plen­ty of debate about what it means to be a fem­i­nist and who women should vote for, which was prompt­ed in part by con­tro­ver­sial remarks from both Madeleine Albright, the first female sec­re­tary of state, and fem­i­nist icon Glo­ria Steinem.

But this cul­tur­al back­drop extends well beyond pol­i­tics to include major moments in sports, enter­tain­ment, and media – all with pow­er­ful, influ­en­tial women at their core.

Queen Bey

Look at Bey­on­cé, for exam­ple.

Knowles’ lat­est video, For­ma­tion, which debuted just a day before her Super Bowl 50 half­time show per­for­mance, has 29.1 mil­lion views on YouTube alone.

What’s more, Knowles arguably stole the show with her live per­for­mance, which, con­ve­nient­ly, was fol­lowed by a Super Bowl ad announc­ing her world tour – and even the lat­ter video has a respectable 1.4 mil­lion views.

Fur­ther, per social media ana­lyt­ics tool Talk­walk­er, #For­ma­tion has been used near­ly 503,000 times since Feb­ru­ary 7.

As an addi­tion­al tes­ta­ment to Knowles’ pow­er, the polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al and social themes in For­ma­tion were the sub­ject of analy­sis in the New York Times.

Even though her Super Bowl per­for­mance incit­ed con­tro­ver­sy, the reac­tion includ­ed an anti-Bey­on­cé ral­ly the New York Post called “the worst attend­ed protest ever,” in which one of rough­ly five pro­test­ers saw his sign dam­aged in the rain “because he for­got to lam­i­nate it.”

Per­haps the real kick­er is that one of the song’s most mem­o­rable lyrics was enough to dri­ve sales up 33 per­cent at Red Lob­ster on Super Bowl Sun­day ver­sus the year-ago peri­od and the brand says it was a trend­ing top­ic on Twit­ter for the first time ever, as well as the sub­ject of more than 300,000 tweets over Super Bowl week­end – includ­ing 42,000 men­tions in a sin­gle hour on Feb­ru­ary 6.

Shake It Off

Then there’s crossover dar­ling Tay­lor Swift, who is undoubt­ed­ly the pub­lic vic­tor in her lat­est spat with rap­per and Kar­dashi­an spouse Kanye West.

West’s new song “Famous” includes a line in which he claims cred­it for Swift’s fame, pre­sum­ably after the unfor­get­table moment when he inter­rupt­ed her accep­tance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when she best­ed, fun­ny enough, Bey­on­cé.

Accord­ing to reports, Swift’s rep said Swift declined to pro­mote the song and “cau­tioned [West] about releas­ing a song with such a strong misog­y­nis­tic mes­sage.”

Swift lat­er took full advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty afford­ed her at the Gram­mys to deliv­er a wide­ly laud­ed accep­tance speech in which she remind­ed young women not to let any­one under­cut their suc­cess or take cred­it for their accom­plish­ments.

Beauty Doesn’t Take Just One Form’

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition Expanded Notion of Beauty

What’s more, the Sports Illus­trat­ed Swim­suit Edi­tion, one of our nation’s most beloved annu­al tra­di­tions, amend­ed its tried-and-true 51-year for­mu­la this year to include three cov­er mod­els because “beau­ty doesn’t take just one form.”

Regard­less of how true this actu­al­ly rings, one cov­er girl, Ash­ley Gra­ham, is the first plus-size mod­el to grace its front page, and anoth­er, Ron­da Rousey, is per­haps best known for her arm­bar sub­mis­sion with­in the Octa­gon or her turn as a body­guard for the Bud Light Par­ty.

In addi­tion, 2016 also marks the year “mature mod­el” Nico­la Grif­fin became the old­est woman to appear in the Swim­suit Edi­tion in a cam­paign for curvy swim­suit retail­er swim­suits­forall.

Also, self-pro­claimed fash­ion doll Bar­bie, which, inter­est­ing­ly enough, is just one year old­er than Grif­fin at 57, also recent­ly made head­lines for adding three new body types.

We are excit­ed to lit­er­al­ly be chang­ing the face of the brand – these new dolls rep­re­sent a line that is more reflec­tive of the world girls see around them – the vari­ety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them,” said Eve­lyn Maz­zoc­co, senior vice pres­i­dent and glob­al gen­er­al man­ag­er of Bar­bie, in a release.

Babevertising 2.0

It’s this state­ment about the world con­sumers see around them that is per­haps the best lens through which to view the future of sex in adver­tis­ing.

Per Rebec­ca Brooks, a founder of Alter Agents Mar­ket Research, we are at a turn­ing point for women in Amer­i­can cul­ture in part because women are chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about them­selves.

Women are now in more lead­er­ship posi­tions in media, mar­ket­ing and brand­ing. They are bring­ing a new per­spec­tive. There is also a resur­gence of feminists…[And New York Mag­a­zine] just announced on its cov­er page that sin­gle women are the most impor­tant vot­ing block in this next elec­tion. Women are front and cen­ter.”

This means babev­er­tis­ing is wan­ing, Brooks said.

But those coveted/dreaded Mil­len­ni­als are also a dri­ving force.

Whatever Millennials Want

Aure­lie Guer­ri­eri, co-pres­i­dent of Women in Wire­less, a non­prof­it that says it “empow­ers and devel­ops female lead­ers in mobile and dig­i­tal media,” notes younger con­sumers are more aware of diver­si­ty and expect brands to under­stand and rep­re­sent them, mean­ing babes don’t res­onate. “

Adver­tis­ers who can cap­i­tal­ize on this and turn the myth on its head, [like Willem Dafoe as Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe for Snick­ers] project a much edgi­er, fresh­er image and are able to con­nect with a wider swath of the audi­ence,” she said.


To wit, per­haps: Snick­ers’ 2016 Super Bowl spot came in at #16 in USA Today’s Ad Meter.

I think we are enter­ing a cul­tur­al moment where soci­ety is cel­e­brat­ing the indi­vid­ual,” said Rosie Garschi­na, asso­ciate cre­ative direc­tor at cre­ative stu­dio Troll­back + Com­pa­ny. “Images that we iden­ti­fy as pow­er­ful and beau­ti­ful are no longer defined by gen­der, race or ori­en­ta­tion. Younger gen­er­a­tions are not inter­est­ed in social norms, but rather equal­i­ty, inclu­siv­i­ty and what makes us unique as indi­vid­u­als. Adver­tis­ing is embrac­ing this move­ment.”

Emi­ly McIn­er­ney, the oth­er co-pres­i­dent of Women in Wire­less, agrees there has been a shift in per­cep­tions of beau­ty, which was in part pio­neered by Dove in its Real Beau­ty cam­paign.

Always’ recent Girl Emo­jis video, which is an exten­sion of its larg­er #LikeA­Girl effort and seeks to empow­er girls to ask for emo­jis that bet­ter reflect them­selves, is anoth­er good exam­ple.


Now more than ever, brands are lis­ten­ing to the fact that cus­tomers want to see faces and bod­ies that they can relate to,” McIn­er­ney said. “Even the biggest babe of them all, Bar­bie, got a body makeover. If that is not telling of the times, I don’t know what is.”

Girls, Girls, Girls

In addi­tion, brands are cater­ing more to grow­ing female audi­ences for events like the Super Bowl and cre­at­ing con­tent specif­i­cal­ly for them, Guer­ri­eri said.

That includes Hyundai’s Ryanville spot, which ranked #5 in Ad Meter this year and arguably objec­ti­fied one-time Sex­i­est Man Alive Ryan Reynolds.

Jes­si­ca Thiele, mar­ket­ing man­ag­er of data inte­gra­tion ser­vices provider Vir­tu­al Logis­tics, also observes that in many house­holds, women tend to do most of the shop­ping and there­fore have buy­ing pow­er, so even brands with male tar­gets may be com­ing to real­ize they can reach their mar­ket by appeal­ing to women.

We’ve Seen It Already’

Fur­ther, over­sat­u­ra­tion may be to blame for the demise of babev­er­tis­ing.

The shock val­ue of scant­i­ly clad women and sexy innu­en­dos has lost its impact,” Brooks said. “Adver­tis­ers are talk­ing to a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with cable tele­vi­sion and the Inter­net. We’ve seen it already. Brands are real­iz­ing that they have to move past tit­il­la­tion to get atten­tion.”

Daniela Cuevas, cre­ative direc­tor at dig­i­tal and social agency The Spark Group, agrees babes just don’t cut through the noise any­more.

At this point, we’re desen­si­tized to those types of com­mer­cials and they’re no longer effec­tive,” she said. “They are not shock-wor­thy to us any­more, espe­cial­ly these days where every­one is naked on tele­vi­sion.”

For her part, Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO of mar­ket­ing con­sult­ing firm Mavens and Moguls, points to a recent and notable shift in adult enter­tain­ment.

Look at Play­boy. When it start­ed, it was a bit racy and scan­dalous and now they do not even have nudi­ty. And guess what: their adver­tis­ing has increased,” she said. “Maybe it is Mil­len­ni­als, maybe it is our 24/7 online cul­ture, but there just has to be more than a naked or biki­ni-clad woman in an ad to get atten­tion these days. “

Treading Lightly

Brands may also shy away from sex in adver­tis­ing over back­lash fears.

In oth­er words, promi­nent nation­al dis­course includes threads about fem­i­nism and body image and some mar­keters say babev­er­tis­ing is tak­ing a hit as a result.

Thiele notes even brands like Dove, which have attempt­ed to incor­po­rate these move­ments, have come under fire for their efforts, which may be per­ceived as hol­low.

How­ev­er, an unin­tend­ed con­se­quence may be more cre­ativ­i­ty among mar­keters look­ing for alter­na­tives.

Brands don’t want that type of neg­a­tive back­lash, so I believe this has forced some brands to put on their think­ing caps and cre­ate dif­fer­ent types of effec­tive ads,” Cuevas said. “There will be those brands that won’t care and will [use] babev­er­tis­ing, but I believe times have changed.”

Per Arnof-Fenn, we cer­tain­ly haven’t seen the end of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion in adver­tis­ing – “not a chance” – but, she said, “I do think [Budweiser’s Helen Mir­ren spot] will encour­age oth­er brands be more cre­ative and take risks going for­ward.”

Marketing’s Dirty Little Secret’

Or, as Brooks puts is, while sex will always be a part of adver­tis­ing, in a way, babev­er­tis­ing is grow­ing up.

I [would say it’s] matur­ing from appeal­ing to 14-year-old boys to appeal­ing to savvy adults,” she said.

And Thiele con­cedes many con­sumers actu­al­ly like babev­er­tis­ing, which is anoth­er rea­son it will nev­er dis­ap­pear com­plete­ly.

I think what’s hap­pen­ing with babev­er­tis­ing is instead it’s going online. Tar­get­ed ads, brands on social media, etc.,” Thiele said. “Babev­er­tis­ing today is almost trans­form­ing into mar­ket­ing’s dirty lit­tle secret — it still works on cer­tain tar­get demo­graph­ics, but to avoid the media back­lash, it’s gone under­ground.”

Do you think sex has lost its main­stream mar­ket­ing pow­er for good?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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