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Sex and Advertising: An "Organic" Experience

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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

Sex and Advertising: An "Organic" Experience

Heather Price

Whenever you turn on the television, it is there. When you are in the doctor's office staring into a magazine, it is staring right back at you. In fact, in today's society, it is assaulting you in sight and sound, no matter where you are or what you are doing. Yes, I am talking about advertising. It is what drives our consumer culture onward. Ads are everywhere, pitching an extensive array of useless products in an equally extensive variety of ways. Advertisers play on several different tactics to get people interested in their products; they humor, self-esteem, peer pressure and many other things, but the one tactic that is most popular and the most effective is using sex in advertising. Why is this ploy so effective? Simply because is plays upon the biological needs of every single human being.

No matter what the product, from shampoo to beer, the tactics are all the same. Get a beautiful person in there and maybe, just maybe, the audience will be tricked into thinking that maybe they can be/have that beautiful person. Seems simple, right? Wrong. The use of these models and how they are posed is actually a very precise art, starting with human biology and the nature of sex. For sake of brevity in this paper, let us just look at print advertising. On the cover of almost every magazine in the grocery store there is a gorgeous model or actor staring at you with that ever so seductive "come hither stare." The thing that most people do not realize that, for the most part, the appeal of that look is generated on a computer.

Graphic artists have become the Picasso's of this technological age; splicing and stretching, they can turn any ordinary woman into a goddess. How do they do this? They simply play upon our biological instincts for procreation. By showing women in a false state of arousal, advertisers are able to associate their products with pleasure and instinctual survival. When a woman is in the early stages of arousal, blood flows to key erogenous areas of the body, namely her breasts and lips. To achieve this effect in print, artists add extra curves and shadows to a woman's breasts and make her lips darker and fuller. Then they enlarge her pupils (another sign of sexual arousal), and lighten the whites of her eyes (because why would her blood be there if it had more important places to be?). Also, in about 65% of all print ads, women are shown with open mouths. This is seen as a very sensual, sexual gesture of submission by men. (1). Advertisers also do these things to make the women look "healthy."

Why is it that this works so well in advertising? According to Richard F. Taflinger, PhD, "Sex is the second strongest of the psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation. Its strength is biological and instinctive, the genetic imperative of reproduction," (2). He also point out, though, that gender also play a huge role in the effectiveness of the advertising.

The biological prerogative of the male is to impregnate as many women as possible in order to carry on the species. Richard F. Taflinger accounts for this by saying, "Genetically, it is the most practical course of action. The more females with which a male mates, the greater number of offspring containing his genes are possible. In addition, the cost of sex in terms of time and energy is considerably lower for the male than the female," (3). By showing a woman in a state of arousal, this is giving a man the "good to go" signal; so advertising is ultimately easier and more effective on men. They are receptive to the immediacy of image, and to the immediacy of the advertising campaign itself.

Women, on the other hand, have a different biological prerogative which makes it more difficult to sell to them. Women instinctively think in the long run and look for that in a sexual partner. Other factors besides health and accessibility come into play. They naturally look for someone who can provide for their offspring, so factors of wealth, power and intelligence quickly come into play and spoil the immediacy of the ad. So women are far more prone to be attracted to images of romantic attachment than sexual imagery. (4) Also, showing a man in the early stages of arousal (like they do with women) is actually counter-productive because women see that as an aggressive, threatening gesture. In today's society women do not want to be threatened, and are more prone to wait and then make her choice of mate.

All these sexual signals displayed by advertisers play upon our most basic, primitive instincts. Though we may laugh at the idea of associating toothpaste with sex, it often is and it sells. I guess the question that follows is not really "why is this so effective on us?" but rather, "what does this do to us?" Does this type of advertising have any sort of psychological or physiological effect on us? Advertisers are playing with instincts which have been formed over a span of millions of years, so it does not seem likely that they can change our most primal ways of thinking about the opposite sex and about sex in general. However, there may lay a danger in the fact that as people become more used to advertising and more adept at deciphering the codes it is sending them, will that change the ways in which they react to these instincts? When we begin to associate the act of sex with gum, there is something intrinsically wrong with that. Unfortunately, with our capitalistic, commercialistic society being what it is, we will continually have to come to terms with the fact that washing your hair is an orgasmic – I mean organic experience.


1)"Sexual Images of Women to Sell Products – 'Facism' and 'Bodyism'", an article with some statistics about the use of women in advertising
2) "You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising", An article by Richard F. Taflinger, PhD on the use of sex in advertising
3) Biological Basis of Sex Appeal", an article by Richard F. Taflinger, PhD
4)"The Evolutionary Theory of Sexual Attraction", an article by Jan Norman on "The Human Sexuality Web"



Comments made prior to 2007

I think sex in advertising sell but its not healthy at all ... Iisha, 6 February 2007


Serendip Visitor's picture

I found this article very

I found this article very interesting, would love to learn more about advertising tactics. Especially what sparks intelligent women's interest.'s picture

Where will it end?

Hi, I agree with you that advertising has got out of hand. There is a very fine line between sexua' imagery and pornography. We compared ads dating back to the 50s with today's ads across 6 product categories. The results speak for themselves:

Sarah's picture


I thought highly of your paper, and wanted to let you know that it offered a new perspective on a topic I'm writing about. You did excellent research and pointed out things that I hadn't even thought of, such subtleties as widening pupils as a sign of sexual arousal. I think you did great.

Anonymous's picture



K. Wall's picture

There's nothing wrong

There's nothing wrong with????
Are you serious?
What does it tell you about the product that it can't be sold on its own merit and not via sex or that we as the intended audience respond to sex with such voraciousness?
Step away from how wonderful sex sells a product and think about how young minds are being bombarded with these images and what they are doing to a childs body image. A model wants to make a living baring all work the adult mag industry and stay off billboards.

D. Lewis's picture

Sex Sells By Making People Feel Depressed

The touched up images presented in advertisements trigger feelings of frustration, humiliation, and despair. They are designed to tell us that we are unworthy of these gods/goddesses. Since we are worthless losers we might as well eat that 1000 calorie burger, drown our sorrows in alcohol, or purchase an all-terrain-vehicle.
Advertising; more than meets the eye!

Tamannah's picture

exploited and degraded women

i believe it is a very cheap way of advertising but shamelessely it has to be admitted that it works for the many men who are degrading the women in todays world but unfortunately women do not see that they are being degraded and exploited but they rather see that they are the primary focus and are are being liberated- which i do not understand why these females feel liberated when they are being raped by the naked eye of these pervy men

Anonymous's picture

I think that it works

I feel that there is nothing wrong with it!
It's only degrading if its nudity and in advertising getting naked in front of a camra and putting it on tv or in a mag is a big no no...
Get over it!!!