Column: Why sex sells

Let’s face it, people. We’re sexual beings. When scantily clad bodies, words of lust and/or promises of sexual gratification cross our paths, we pay attention. Unfortunately (for the purposes of this column only), we’re mostly powerless against these devices. The idea of sex is potent, and we tend to like where it leads.

Taking these realities into consideration, I’d like to pose an important question: What the hell are we supposed to do when the aforementioned tools are used against us to sell a product? It’s no secret that sex is often used in advertising to elicit a response that could end in the purchasing of a good or service. So how do we distinguish between the sex-driven products that we actually want and the ones that we don’t?

Sex has been around in advertising much longer than one would think, given the relatively prude nature of our fair nation. The first known use of sex in an ad was in 1871, when Pearl Tobacco brand began featuring a naked “maiden” on the package cover. Other companies soon followed suit upon noticing the impact it had on sales — in 1885 W. Duke and Sons began including trading cards featuring sexy starlets inside their cigarette packs, and in 1890 found themselves the leading cigarette brand.

As society has evolved, so too has the industry of advertising and its use of sex to attract consumers, most notably those aged 14-35. In modern times, sex is used in commercials and print ads to such a degree that it sometimes takes some careful consideration to understand what the ad is even promoting.

Take H&M’s Super Bowl ad this past week, for example, featuring 30 seconds of intimate screen time with a heavily tattooed, barely dressed, sub-2 percent-body-fat David Beckham. At the end of the commercial, I started trying to figure out if the ad was targeting women who wanted to buy a David Beckham, men who wanted to buy David Beckham’s personal trainer, or tattoo artists. Ten minutes later I woke up in an H&M buying extremely tight boxer briefs.

Sex in advertising is a highly effective tool, but only if used correctly. My H&M episode isn’t likely to happen to a large enough percentage of Americans to significantly increase revenue for the department store giant. Applied appropriately, though, sexy ads can make a huge difference, and for some very specific reasons.

Tom Reichert, Professor and Department Head of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Georgia, who discusses sex in advertising on his aptly named website www.sexinadvertising.com, recently found that 73 percent of sexual ads in magazines contained a sex-related brand benefit. He stressed these ads all followed a “buy this, get this” formula, where upon buying a product, the consumer would in theory become sexier, have more/better sex or feel sexier while simultaneously knowing it.

Reichert cited the introduction of Axe body spray to the world in considering the above formula. When the commercials were first released, they focused on a young man’s sudden magnetic pull on attractive women once spraying the deodorant across his chest. What the advertisers aimed for in selling to their young-male demographic was not merely grabbing attention with sex, but more importantly, using it as the primary reason for buying Axe products.

Other companies such as Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret have used sex in their marketing efforts in the same fashion, both even completely intertwining sex with their brands. The result? Calvin Klein products currently generate roughly $1 billion in annual revenue and Victoria’s Secret has become the most recognized intimate clothing brand in the world.

As people who fall directly under the demographic of consumers companies target with sex-based advertising, college students should be aware of their response to near-naked supermodels drinking a can of Coke or Pepsi on screen. When the commercial is finished and you have the urge for a soda, is it because you want one or because… of sex?  A word of advice: try your best to be like me and maintain an acute awareness during sex-glazed ads.

Shit, the Beckham spot is on again.

VICTOR BEIGELMAN is considering teaming up with Victoria’s Secret to open a men’s intimate clothing store, “Victor’s Secret.” Ask him how you can get involved at vbeigelman@ucdavis.edu.