Sexual Violence in Advertising

It is commonly known that sex sells, but the way in which sex and sexuality are used in advertising have wide-reaching implications for gender relations.

It is commonly known that sex sells, but the way in which sex and sexuality are used in advertising have wide-reaching implications for gender relations. Feminist writers argue that such adverts objectify women and contribute to their subjugation in society. This raises the theme of sexual politics.

Sex has continually been used to sell products. This can be a controversial tactic: many people object to explicit imagery on moral grounds, and exposing children to explicit imagery is a particularly emotive issue. This is a French Connection advert that personifies ‘style’ and ‘fashion’ as two women fighting. The image itself it not particularly explicit, but it was criticised for its violent implications. The image of two scantily-clad women fighting accords with the male fantasy of the cat-fight and alludes to sado-masochistic practices.

Advertisers have used sex to sell products throughout history. A famous example was the Wonder-Bra advert that came out in the mid-1990s. This featured the model Eva Herzigova, and focused on the asset-boosting potential of the Wonder-bra. The image became was an icon of the Loaded generation and ‘lad culture’ of the 90s. It was justified on the grounds that it was an ironic parody of old sexist viewpoints. It supposedly shows a liberated post-feminist woman who is confident with her body and sexuality. However, the image still appeals to male fantasies and a very limited conception of female beauty. It could be argued that advertisers had simply discovered a way of assuaging feminist concerns, but continuing to perpetuate the same imagery.

Recently there was a controversial campaign in the city of Sunderland in North East England. This was advertising a dance studio, but it consisted of a series of fairly explicit images of a naked woman together with the slogan ‘Come worship me.’ In the corner the name of a website, comeworshipme.com. There was no indication of what it was actually advertising: the only way a viewer could discover the meaning was to access the website. The advert solicited the curiosity and voyeurism of the viewer in order to complete the advertising process, which is an original technique, although I suspect it worked better on men than on women.

Diesel has begun a controversial campaign called ‘Sex Sells’. This appears to reiterate the same reactionary models of masculinity and femininity. However, the posters include a line of small print: ‘unfortunately we sell jeans.’ This knowingly acknowledges the adage that sex sells, but subverts expectations by dissociating the advert from the sex trade proper. At the same time, however, suggestive imagery is used to convey the message.

Another Diesel advert depicts two women in the act of whipping a man who has been tied up. The man has evidence of a noughts-and-crosses game branded onto his back, suggesting that for this strange triad, extreme sexuality is merely a game. This advert seems calculated to appeal to liberated young viewers with a casual attitude to sex and sexual experimentation. However, if the positions were reversed and instead the image depicted a woman being whipped by two men, the implications would be very different. This would be an image of male violence and sexualised hatred towards women. The advert seeks to allay this possibility by depicting female antagonists and a male victim. However, one of the women has a nought-and-crosses game on her back, suggesting that she has already been subjected to sexual torture. In this case, the supposedly liberal attitude to sex is underscored by severely violent and reactionary implications.

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Ileen Zovluck
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