There aren’t many things certain in life other than death and taxes.

But in the advertising world the old adage that ‘sex sells’ has always been thought of as pretty bulletproof. Putting a little sexual oomph in your ads is something that’s been used for over a century, with some research pointing out that the concept has helped boost sales despite the taboo nature of some campaigns.

Only, it looks like that school of thought is changing… Could we be entering an age where sex no longer sells?

A lot of talking heads think so, and there’s also data and social trends to point to to back the theory up. And part of that theory is that the millennial generation is so fed up of over-sexualised content everywhere – especially in the digital age – that it’s simply no longer interesting or effective.


Are millennials fed up with sexualised advertisements?

“They don’t respond to traditional notions of beauty or even sexuality. They respond to real social change and self direction. There is a reason that the [lingerie retailer] Aerie campaigns that are not retouched are doing well. They are making a statement, changing an industry, and are still aspirational.”

They’re the thoughts of Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer of the image-making agency YARD talking to Business Insider recently in an article discussing how Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel – notorious for their heavily sexualised campaigns – have toned it down.

Generation Z (or the iGen) is also tarred with the blame brush. But American Apparel especially has been in dire straits before, filing for bankruptcy. Surely sexual ads aren’t to blame?

YOUR TURN: Does sex still sell, or have we moved on as a society? Are millennials completely changing the way we advertise creatively? Let me know in the comments section below.

A demure digital age?

There’s also some interesting data doing the rounds that suggests major brands are having a rethink about their television campaigns with the Super Bowl around the corner, with research indicating that sexual ads on television ads does brands more harm than good.

A study by Brad Bushman and Robert Lull of Ohio State University showed that sexual or violent messages in ads were actually detrimental to the overall message, causing people to forget what was being advertised.

“Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes and buying intentions for advertised products. Advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexual programmes, and about using these themes in their ads,” says psychologist professor Brad Bushman.

Let’s look closer to home. Hot on the heels of Playboy halting publication, both Bauer Media’s FHM and Zoo announced last week that they were also set to close down following on the trail of the now-deceased Nuts and Loaded.


No Sex Please, We're Millennials


But they’re two dying mediums, surely, print and television? What’s that got to do with digital marketing?

Everything. Don’t fall for that way of thinking. It has everything to do with digital marketing; FHM especially as a brand having to close its print operations and online model to better accommodate its digital audience is huge, and isn’t only a tough business decision but a social one as well.

Like the argument that violent movies and video games desensitized audiences to violence in the 90s, so goes the argument that the overwhelming amount and accessibility of sexual content on the internet has done the same to consumer audiences – especially millennials that have grown up with it.

Also consider this; the social nature of the internet means that brands have easier access to bigger markets. Is alienating a huge portion of your market with crass imagery going to help your business grow?

YOUR TURN: Do you use provocative imagery to sell products or get yourself noticed online? Have you noticed any changes over the years or are you carrying on as normal? Let me know below!

Gathering data for a truly sexy strategy

The beer market of all places has discovered this according to Marketing Week, which points out that both Fosters and Heineken have changed their ads to include a more creative and inclusive world view (James Bond gets saved by a lady for instance in one Heineken ad).


“Consumers are looking for a lot more from a brand now… [Brands need] an approach that brings in some brains to the brawn. It’s all been a part of a generational shift towards greater sense of empowerment and individuality,” Ruth Bernstein also points out

All of this isn’t to say that sex doesn’t sell anymore. For all the data and musings that have been linked to here, the consensus is that it can still be effective, so long as it’s done in the right way.

For instance I saw a sponsored ad in my Facebook feed from a local garage the other day. The image they decided to use was a scantily-clad woman on a car bonnet alongside MOT prices!

If this underlines anything it’s that marketers and brands have greater access to data than ever before, and it’s essential to use it in the right ways to build up a picture of the people you want to advertise to and welcome to your brand to help you grow.

Creativity and engagement are the new sex when it comes to marketing your brand online. Content that tells a story and hits the right tone with your researched market on a social level is something that brands could only have dreamt about 10 years ago.

The tools available to us now can go as far as discovering the interests of people on an individual level if need be. Creating and researching those people is essential for brand growth, and creating a user journey that keeps them coming back for more.

Digital advertising is not only helping brands break away from traditional media, but also traditional advertising concepts. Collect the right data and think creatively to produce something truly sexy for your customers.

If you’d like to learn more about gathering customer data and how digital advertising can help grow your brand online contact us now!

(Images:, Forbes)