idsgn (a design blog)

Now and then: Sex still sells

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July 1 2009

Calvin Klein billboard in New York’s SoHo district (Photo: bitchcakes, Flickr)

After witnessing Calvin Klein's now infamous ‘orgy’ billboard in New York City, and the controversy surrounding it, contributing writer Josh Smith looks into the history of sex in advertising.

A few weeks ago, while rushing in the morning commute, I noticed a new Calvin Klein billboard in Manhattan’s SoHo district. The suggestive poses and bare skin seemed pretty typical for a fashion ad. In fact, I might not have even noticed it, except that it seemed unusual to show such intimacy between one girl and three guys. I carried on my way though, without too much thought.

Later that day, the public outcry broke to major news outlets. Had I been witness to a newsworthy event? It was odd.

Was everyone suddenly realizing there is sex in media? Was a billboard in SoHo really the most offensive culprit? Was broadcasting photos of it all across the nation the best way to curb this trend and keep it away from tender, innocent, young eyes? Did they think this attention would keep it from happening again?

Perhaps I’m cynical, but the reaction seemed a bit overblown to me. Seen here from Associated Press:

All of it got me a bit curious about the whole notion of sex in advertising. Hadn’t we seen this a zillion times before? Have we arrived on some hedonistic time and not noticed, or have we always been confronted with ads that pushed our sexual buttons?

We seem to be going through a period of nostalgia, and everyone seems to think yesterday was better than today. I don't think it was, and I would advise you not to wait ten years before admitting today was great. If you're hung up on nostalgia, pretend today is yesterday and just go out and have one hell of a time.

-Art Buchwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

So, inspired, I started digging up some vintage ads:


Witness this Ivory Soap ad from the 1910’s in which a bunch of naked sailors get lathered up in the bath together while their friend hoses them off. Try putting a picture of that in an ad these days. Even better is the copy, which reads:

“We all had a bath…about 25 being under the hose at one time…It certainly seemed like home to rub in the mild Ivory lather from head to foot and then feel the delightful exhilaration following a brisk rub down.”


Throughout the 40's Springmaid sheets ran a campaign using 'girly' pictures and infusing their copy with double-entendre's, which are confusing to decipher these days “ available to the fals bottom and bust bucket business as 'springmaid perker'... And dont be caught buying 'flat, stale' coffee in the 50's or your husband will beat you, as this Chase & Sanborn coffee ad will attest.”


This In-Sink-Erator really is an “everlasting gift.” You need only buy it once and your wife will be moved to show her 'thanks' three times a day! I wonder if there was a money-back guarantee on that product benefit? This Tiparillo ad campaign of 1967 goes down as some of the most overt copywriting I've seen anywhere, anytime. The series investigated the burning question “Should a gentleman offer a Tiparillo to: a librarian, a violinist and a lab technician?”

“After a tough evening with the Beethoven crowd, she loves to relax an listen to her folk-rock records. Preferably, on your stereo. She's open-minded. So maybe tonight you offer her a Tiparillo. She might like it—the slim cigar with a white tip. Elegant. And, you dog, you've got both on hand. Tiparello Regular and new Timparillo M with menthol—her choice of mild smoke or cold smoke. Well? Should you offer? After all, if she likes the offer, she might start to play. No strings attached.”


The copy speaks for itself:
”After one look at Mr Leggs slacks she was ready to have him walk all over her.”
“Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere.”


I find it hard to believe that no one was grossed out by this double page spread for Chanel moisture balm to “attend to the needs of modern man.”


In the 80's the notion that sex sells really had traction. With powerful marketing agencies in full swing and a track record of affecting the bottom line, sex was everywhere. Cotler's pants promise the right stance for... whatever it is they are doing, and the first thing he noticed was her Big Mouth, although the photographer seemed to notice other parts.




In the last decade, sexual boundaries continue to be pushed. From American Apparel encouraging shoppers to 'google' a porn star modeling their socks, to Tom Ford's conveniently placed perfume bottles, to a naughty nun selling gelato (now banned in the UK), the limits of good taste and sexuality seem transitional. Some of the ads found were too obscene or strange to even show in this post, see the whole gallery here.

By European standards, North America may be tame in its acceptance of sexuality. The debate is whether this modesty is in the interest of good taste or of sexual immaturity. In some ways it's hard to compare the CK billboard to the rest. It does stand fifty feet in the air and is overtly sexual, but was artistic and celebratory of sexuality in a way that the Axe campaign and others are not. There were no vulgar slogans and there did not appear to be dominance or exploitation. Though I would not choose to have it there, the outcry seems misplaced in light of the latest Burger King ad, among others. Regardless of our opinions on good taste and sexuality. The reality is sex has always been a part of our common experience and will continue to be. Sex is here to stay. In advertising and everywhere.

Last week, Calvin Klein's controversial billboard was taken down and replaced with a new ad featuring a dripping-wet, bikini-clad model. Interestingly, much more publically acceptable.

[Some images sourced from All American Ads and Found in Mom's Basement.]

Filed under: advertising

By Josh Smith