Small-business owners who want to use sexually charged themes in their marketing campaigns should carefully analyze the risks and benefits. On one hand, attention-grabbing images draw in consumers. On the other hand, sex appeal in advertising ranges from subtle to tasteless to sexist, and not everyone agrees where the lines are drawn.

Capturing Attention

Sexuality is a fundamental part of the human experience, so it’s no surprise that it catches people’s attention. Like appealing to people’s desires for financial security or family well-being, appealing to sexual desires works, which is why advertisers do it. The controversy begins, however, when advertisers exploit sexuality for profit. For example, few people are bothered by tasteful images of beautiful people, but outrage always follows in the wake of advertisements that toy with sexual taboos.


Sex appeal in advertising can aim at winning over consumers who are attracted to the models in the advertisements, or it can aim to win over consumers who want to be as sexually attractive as the models. For instance, a company marketing women’s perfume might use an image of a strikingly handsome man, hoping to develop the idea that using this perfume will attract such men. Or the company could use an image of a beautiful woman, hoping to develop the idea that women wearing this perfume tend to be attractive to others. In other words, the end goal of each method is largely the same, even though they both approach sexuality differently.


Sexual innuendo allows advertisers to dip their toes in prurience while minimizing risk of criticism and public censure. For example, a humorous television commercial might use puns or undertones that hint at a sexual theme without being explicit. Another option is to use subtle visual clues that suggest sexuality, although it is often debatable whether these clues actually are sexual. For example, a car commercial might feature a beautiful women gently running her hands over the curves of a shiny car. To some degree, the existence of sex appeal in this commercial depends on the viewer.

Expert Insight

Simply adding sex appeal to the equation doesn’t make an advertisement effective. One company’s television commercial for breakfast cereal, for example, succeeded with men because it involved nearly nude women posing in front of mirrors, according to “Principles of Advertising: A Global Perspective, Second Edition,” by Mona Lee. But the target group was women, who didn’t find the ad appealing, so the campaign was a failure.


An ethical dilemma accompanies the use of sex appeal in advertisements. On one hand, you know sex appeal works and can generate profits for your business, which is the reason you’re creating the advertisement in the first place. On the other hand, your advertisement might feed on and strengthen stereotypes that damage society. For example, pervasive images of overly skinny women reinforce an unrealistic standard of beauty, which can be damaging to women, especially young girls.