Does Sex Sell?

Advertising and marketing in the Internet age is more explicit than ever.

with contributions from Sarah Haight
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A Tom Ford ad

Photo By Courtesy

Three decades ago, Calvin Klein triggered debate — and a publicity bonanza — when 15-year-old Brooke Shields purred, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

These days, that landmark television commercial, which CBS and NBC dropped because of its sexual overtones, seems downright quaint.

From Abercrombie & Fitch ads to Lady Gaga music videos, Web sites and reality TV shows such as MTV’s “The Real World,” sexually charged advertising and media images are bombarding consumers — many of them tweens and teens seven to 18 years old. Though more explicit than ever, they rarely raise an eyebrow.

Brand marketers covet tweens and teens. Girls ages eight to 12 alone generated $6.24 billion in apparel sales last year and spent $407.8 million in the intimates category, according to the NPD Group research consultancy. Apparel spending among 13- to 18-year-old girls last year totaled $25 billion, while intimates generated another $1.2 billion.

Intimates plays a big part in fashion apparel, and younger consumers are growing up faster and dressing more provocatively in padded push-up bras, strapless tops, low-cut camisoles, corset looks, boy-cut shorts, thongs and related items that feature sayings such as Eye Candy and Wink Link by A&F.

“There is a definite sexualization of young girls,” said Marc Gobé, president of Emotional Branding LLC. “They are extremely social and connected, more than any generation before, having been born in the technology cauldron.”

There is an inherent challenge for advertisers and marketers who “straddle the boundaries between children, teens and adults,” Gobé said. “Tweens are a lot more mature today because of technology, and they clearly understand the sexual proposition of the ads they see.”

To a degree, fashion brands are going with the flow of a 24/7 media landscape in which the limits of what images are deemed acceptable are constantly being tested and expanded. And while they are playing a role in communicating suggestive, if sometimes playful, sexually infused messages, brands and retailers are generally reluctant to discuss the impact of what they are doing.

In fashion alone, the tidal wave of sexual images includes underwear ads featuring David and Victoria Beckham and Megan Fox for Emporio Armani, as well as Kate Moss, Mark Wahlberg, Hilary Swank and Eva Mendes for Calvin Klein Underwear.

Even designers have gotten into the act. Although tweens and teens aren’t his target customer, Marc Jacobs bared all for the ad campaign this spring for the new men’s fragrance, Bang, which shows him spread-eagle naked on a silver Mylar bed — with only an oversize bottle of the fragrance strategically placed for modesty’s sake. Tom Ford, both at Gucci and for his own new label, has used sexual imagery to create an aura around the brands, including a full-monty model in his 2002 campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s M7 men’s fragrance.

“The question is how do you differentiate between entertainment and advertising?” said Robert Passikoff, president and chief executive officer of Brand Keys Inc. “It always gets sticky when you talk about morality.…And there’s a question for retailers, branders and marketers of ‘Should we leverage this [provocative content] to children because we want to make sales?”

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