Are Ads Selling Products… or People?

By Margaret Smith, North Carolina State University

“Sex sells” is one of the golden rules of advertising. We know that everyone is bound to be offended by something. We know that it’s impossible to please everyone. But provocative, sexually explicit ads are becoming more and more widespread as advertisers struggle to bring attention to and make money from the brands they represent.

American Apparel is well-known for the overtly sexual nature of its ads: scantily-clothed women (and sometimes even men) sprawled in compromising positions wearing little more than a pair of nylons or a skimpy top. Take this ad for “tops and bottoms.”

"Tops and Bottoms"

Nearly anyone who looks at that ad is going to focus more on what the models are not wearing. Ads like these will definitely leave an impression of American Apparel at the forefront of a potential consumer’s mind, but will it be a positive or negative impression? By using such sexually charged ad tactics, American Apparel could very well be alienating more conservative-minded potential consumers.

Even so, how likely are we to form an opinion of a product from what the advertiser is showing us? Opinions are more likely formed from experience with a product or word-of-mouth instead of just looking at advertising. After all, a potential buyer has to physically find out just how well the shirt fits, looks, and feels before he buys it. In the end, advertisements may not hold that much sway over who actually buys the product. They could be a clever hook to get people into the store. But since they’ve become so common, how can these ads hook people?

We may have become desensitized by these ads since they’ve become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Many young women and girls are so used to looking at these ads that they believe that to look good in the clothing or to wear the perfume being advertised, they have to be just as thin and “perfect” as the models. Body image problems and eating disorders have spiked in recent years and are still on the rise. Self-esteem and confidence levels fall as eating disorders and sexually charged ads surround us. The Dolce & Gabbana ad below is full of violent sexual imagery. The woman is clearing being bound and dominated by a group of men. Objectifying women in advertisements has become almost commonplace, sending the message and image of normalcy that women are objects of pleasure for men. The models also all fit a specific demographic, and depict “ideal” bodies.

Each of the models in the ad are thin, glowing and have flawless skin. Ads of this sort are becoming the norm and not the exception. Children, particularly young women, are constantly exposed to over-sexualized advertisements and are starting to develop a feeling of inadequacy when they do not resemble the models pictured. Girls may struggle to conform to a body image that simply isn’t the way their body is meant to be and is often an unattainable ideal. In a 1986 study of ten-year-old girls, 81% of them said they had dieted at least once, proving that body image is a common concern for the very young. The more prevalent these ads become, the more young girls will grow up seeing them and believing that they must look like supermodels to be confident and successful.

Surely the advertisers know just what kind of an effect their ads are having on women. But then why do they keep creating them? Is money more important than the mental welfare of women? Kia must have
known what image would spring to people’s minds when they began this recent ad campaign:

If they meant this “comic” to be funny, parents and others who care about the well-being of young girls are not laughing. The ad does nothing to illustrate the benefits of dual climate control and, if fact, has nothing to do with cars at all. Have companies become less ethical as they strive to create the most controversial and money-making ad campaigns? Parents and other concerned citizens may be less inclined to purchase a Kia because of the advertisers’ lack of taste. While the ad has received some blogger criticism, the ad actually won the prestigious Silver Press Lion at the Cannes Lion Awards showing the industry doesn’t consider this type of message problematic.

While auto advertisements have a history of using questionable messages, you’d think an ad for a sandwich would have to be kept in good taste. This Burger King ad contains a not-so-subtle sexual metaphor:

The woman in the ad looks mindless. Is this the message we want to send to men and boys—that women are objects and can be “consumed” and used as this sandwich can? Ads like these may be “harmless” and “funny” to some, but they do have a substantial impact.

There is a growing activist movement to change the messages that advertisers are selling to consumers and even children. Here are some ways to join the movement:

  • Refuse to buy from companies that advertise in a provocative way.
  • Be a mentor to young girls by telling them that their mind is more important than their body.
  • Blog about it! Make a post on Facebook or Twitter and encourage others to do the same.
  • Support companies that send positive messages in their advertising. Companies like Dove have taken a stand against the unrealistic image of beauty often used in advertising.

Tell us what you think on Twitter or Facebook. Are these ads harmless or are they a definite contributor to young girls’ all-too-common lack of self-esteem?


The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


One thought on “Are Ads Selling Products… or People?

  1. Wow. Didn’t expect Burger King to jump on that wagon. It’s horrifying just how bad this is getting.

    Posted by johnroemhild | July 9, 2011, 11:47 am

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