When Do Ads Get Too Sexy?

The American Advertising Federation’s (AAF) Code of Ethics states, “Be free of statements, illustrations or implications which are offensive to good taste or public decency” (Plaisance, 130). Many questions are raised about the portrayal of sex and objectification of women in marketing efforts. Are these sexualized ads offensive to the public? Are they considered distasteful? I believe that the answer to these questions and concerns is dependent on the product, organization, and targeted audience.

Plaisance brings attention to advertisements by Belvedere Vodka and Dolce & Gabbana that raise questions about the ethics because of the over-the-top sexualized imagery. The luxury vodka’s commercial depicts women in provocative clothing getting spanked in public. The fashion print ad was claimed to glamourize “stylized gang rape” by the National Organization for Women (Plaisance, 132). The Case in Point quoted Wally Snyder, the AAF’s CEO, who does not think offended consumers will buy the products and companies that partake in sexual advertising will only hurt their brand’s image (Plaisance, 132)


Belvedere Vodka commercial

I do not believe that it is unethical to use sex to sell, but it should be executed tastefully and used appropriately. It is difficult to judge the extremity of sexual ads because viewers have different ideas about what is acceptable and what is pushing the limit. A study by Dahlberg and Zimmerman (2008) compared women’s reactions to sexual advertisements to a similar study done in 1991. They found younger, educated females are not as offended by these types of ads as the women in the previous study, and this could be because sexuality is an accepted quality in our culture that could represent power, sophistication, and creative art (Dahlberg & Zimmerman, 2008).

Sex is prominent in our society through all forms of media which we are exposed to throughout our days. I think since we are so accustomed to seeing sexual messages, they do not really bother us or significantly catch our attention. This obviously depends on the subtleness or extremity of the depictions. I agree that ethical questions can be raised when an advertisement clearly shows graphic or degrading representations of women and sex. I think marketers can go for the risk if they take careful considerations about whom they are targeting and how they are sending their message. The saying “sex sells” is frequently repeated, but is it accurate?

An article on Business Insider, “Do You Think Sex Sells? Think Again”, would disagree with the common saying. Ira Kalb lists reasons that sex does not sell, which includes offensiveness, seen as gimmicks, and distraction of attention from the product (Business Insider, 2012). People believe it works since it is used a lot. I believe it works for “sexy” products such as luxury cars and lingerie. It shouldn’t be used for fast food or construction tools, even if the primary audiences consist of men.

Sex isn’t going to be banned from music, television, or movies anytime soon. Advertisers are going to keep attempting to use it to persuade consumers to buy their products and services. The ethical standpoint is going to be determined based on the consumers’ opinions. I personally think if you like and use a brand, but you find their advertising somewhat offensive you shouldn’t let that affect your purchases. In the end, it’s about the quality of the product and personal preference of the buyer.


Dahlberg, J., & Zimmerman, A. (2008). The sexual objectification of women in advertising: A contemporary cultural perspective. Journal of Advertising Research. DOI: 10.2501/S0021849908080094 http://pure.au.dk/portal/files/10594/8_-_sexual_objectification_of_women.pdf

Kalb, Ira. (2012, April 16). “Do you think sex sells? Think again.” Business Insider. Retrieved March 5, 2015 from http://www.businessinsider.com/do-you-think-sex-sells-think-again-2012-4

Plaisance, P. L. (2014). Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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