When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everyone went into hiding. Marketers no longer pitched anything but staples and conservative looks. People were in hospitals, and the mood was too somber to evoke Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation in advertising.
Now as we see vaccines rolling out and the economy opening up again, the mood has changed. Consumers are bubbling with desire to physically gather and communications have changed to reflect that sentiment. Brands have been carefully backing into new marketing campaigns that are once again more upbeat and spark a new freedom of expression and sensuality once again. Advertising is now emphasizing a sense of sexual self-awareness as well as relationships among couples that live together. And that is bringing a return to more sexuality in advertising, albeit in an updated way.
Companies like 7 for All Mankind and The Gap’s Athleta are advertising with a ‘spirit of freedom’, according to Ruth Bernstein, CEO of the creative firm Yard NYC. Diesel was told by Cheryl Dunn, a filmmaker and photographer, that she was trying to capture intimate, candid moments in her creative work.
Wikipedia reminds us that sex in advertising is the use of sex appeal to help sell a particular product of service. According to their research, sexually appealing imagery used for marketing does not need to pertain to the product or service but merely evoke feelings that create a positive association and entice a customer to make a purchase. A few examples of sexually appealing imagery traditionally used in advertising include nudity, pin-up, models, and muscular men.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the use of sex and sexuality is changing. It is more expansive and emphasizes the emotional feelings that go along with intimacy, and even includes emotional feelings individuals have about themselves.
For instance, we see a new display of female sexuality. All women are empowered when they feel beautiful and confident in their body, regardless of their size shape or weight. And, that self-confidence can make them feel sexy and appealing. During the recent pandemic, many women may have gained some weight. But that does not matter. Whether it is Lululemon or Athletica, the subtle appeal is that their apparel is for every customer in every size – all can feel good about themselves.
There is still a huge focus in the beauty industry, and the media in general, that a woman’s looks greatly influence the admiration, envy, and desire she evokes. However, NOW (National Organization of Women) and its “love your body” campaign is working to counter that narrow view. It supports advertising showing women of all shapes and sizes actively involved in making our world better and champions that use of femininity as the real power behind the advertising.
The earliest known use of sex to sell products was by the Pearl Tobacco brand in 1871; it featured a lightly draped maiden on the package cover and the tobacco sold well. Duke Brand cigarettes featured sexually provocative starlets and became the leading cigarette brands by 1890. Woodbury facial coal was almost discontinued until images of romantic couples were advertised, suggesting love and intimacy.
More recently, Benetton gained attention with their multicultural and sexual images which were developed by Oliviero Toscani and shocked readers (including me). And, we certainly must not forget Calvin Klein, who proclaimed that Jeans are about sex and was known for using young models whose ad images edged on “soft porn”. Among other advertisers who also relied on the physical display of attractive bodies, often scantily clad, was Victoria Secret. Its bold use of muscular men at entrances of their stores and annual fashion shows caused widespread comments. Nonetheless, whether it was Benneton, Calvin Klein, or Victoria Secret, these tactics worked as their merchandise sold well to young customers who wanted to look attractive, and fashionably savvy.
The recent wave of sexually explicit ads mirrors our times. The ads reflect a desire for intimacy and the joy of being together rather than just focus on raw sexuality. They are often shot in ordinary settings rather than glamourous, sexy backdrops. Diesel’s recent campaign of couples happy to be together again and intimate has been credited with motivating young people to shop in Diesel stores. Customers responded to the brand and validated the advertising effort.
Business for specialty stores and chain stores has been slow in gaining momentum in this post-pandemic era. Retailers are searching for ways to bring customers to their stores. Advertising has to be creative and sparkle. The idea that joyful intimacy and/or a positive sense of self add sexual energy – can be just the creative spark that ignites customer interest in shopping again.