Sex-Appeals; Advertising; Ethics; Teens
The use of sexual appeals in advertising is increasingly prevalent in the United States. Perhaps the use is in response to the preponderance of advertisements in everyday life. The advertisements most often featuring such appeals are for image-based products. Actual images in ads can often convey emotions powerfully, which may explain the frequent use in marketing image-based products. These products include: candy, liquor, cigarettes, jewelry, fragrance, cosmetics and fashion goods. It is advertisements for products such as, but not limited to these, that often use sexual appeals. The use of such appeals is constantly scrutinized in terms of ethics, regardless of the target audience. Considerable research has been done on ethics in marketing, partly because marketing is the business function most often charged with unethical practices. Ethical judgments are subjective and complex, and deal with cultural norms. Yet, there is another dimension of ethical questions when sexual appeals are used to promote products to teens. Teens (12 – 17 year olds) are an increasingly attractive market segment for advertisers, as their disposable incomes are growing. Also, teens have an ability to influence the purchase decisions of their parents and friends, and often develop a brand loyalty, which continues into adulthood. Sexual appeals have the ability to get the attention of teens, and may help to sell products to that market segment. In an effort to quantitatively analyze the ways that sexual appeals are used in media targeting teens, I performed a content analysis. Magazines were used because of their clear targeting from a marketing standpoint: with a wide variety of titles, across large demographics, advertisers can use magazines to hone in on their target market. Using the Media Research Inc. (MRI) database, which compiles magazine readership statistics much like ACNielsen publishes television viewership, I selected magazines with comparatively high teen readership. 600 advertisements in eight leading magazines that reach teens were reviewed: four publications targeted at females and four with high teen male readership were selected. The results were analyzed in conjunction with the ethical questions about the use of sexual appeals. While 20% of the ads used a form of sexual appeal, they tended to use light innuendo, humor, and degree of fantasy that create a disconnect with real sexual behavior. Only 0.7% of all the advertisements showed models engaging in erotic behavior. Because there is virtually no pornographic or offensive content, these ads will continue to be used to sell products to teens. Advertisers are currently protected under the interpretation of the Constitution’s free speech first amendment as commercial speech. However, the influence of consumer watchdog groups in this country has proven their effectiveness in the past, and will continue to play a role in marketing responsibility.