Recently, Lewis Capaldi “stripped his clothes off and traumatized the general public in the name of shameless self-promotion.” The conclusion was that sex sells. What does this mean for photographers working in the advertising world? What does this say about the body of work you should have? Keep reading to find out.
You guessed it, Lewis Capaldi’s ad was a sarcastic comment on the fact that sex still sells in 2022. While the ad has certainly become less sexualized in the wake of body positivity and the rapid decline of Victoria’s Secret era, there’s still a lot of sex in commercials. Photographers working in the commercial sector need to understand the importance of this and include appropriate images in their portfolios.
Sex is a very sensitive subject, which is both a good and a bad thing. Done right, it can grab attention and garner attention around a campaign, but if done poorly, sex can ruin a brand’s reputation. This is why you need to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is not. The best ads provoke, but don’t divide or scandalize.
Why does sex sell?
A study by The Journal of Sex Research indicates that men think about sex 19 times a day, while women 10. These numbers can vary widely, but it still shows that, on average, people think about sex a lot.
At the same time, it is a taboo subject. If used well, a sexualized image can spark conversations and even a little controversy. A far cry from Benetton’s shock advertising, sexy ads are known to grab attention, for good or ill.
Attracting the viewer’s attention is the key to any advertising campaign. The more people see the ad, the more people will buy the products. In the 2020s, this extends to meme culture, where an advertisement becomes a global sensation through social media and memes. Just think of the $999 Pro display. Ultimately, the sex is shocking, which grabs attention, and then sells the product.
Many brands sell the idea of having a product rather than the product itself. Think about fashion: the real value of luxury goods is almost nil, but the status and idea of having such a good is worth the price. Fashion sells a lifestyle: “buy this, get that” advertising model. Victoria’s Secret and Tom Ford have both done shocking sex ads in the past. The idea they sell to women is that by having their products, they will appear more attractive to their potential partners. Ax body spray may not be the best on the market, but it’s selling very well among young people because it promises to “drive her crazy”. Believe it or not, there are people who sincerely believe that it is a magic spell to attract partners.
Victoria’s Secret is another example, in fact, rather telling. In its heyday, it was selling the idea of sexy lingerie. It was one of the first brands to present lingerie as seductive clothing, rather than ordinary clothing. Sexy and Victoria’s Secret have become synonymous. The brand image created by sexual imagery propelled the company to the top. And then all the way down. The positive body image of a woman, rather than a sexualized one, has become very popular. New brands have gained popularity. They sold the opposite of Victoria’s Secret: comfort and inclusiveness. They weren’t ugly granny panties either, they were nice items for someone who didn’t look like one of the “angels”. Victoria’s Secret’s sexual image led to its downfall.
What does this mean for photographers?
A question with multiple answers. It mostly depends on the genre you work in. Sex can be a great idea to add to your portfolio if you’re looking to land fashion jobs. However, this is a bad idea if you want to film advertisements for hospitals. Let’s see which commercially viable photographic genres are best known for their sexualized imagery in their advertising campaigns.
As you may have gathered from this article, fashion campaigns feature eroticism in their images. Brands like Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Mugler, Diesel and Yves Saint Laurent.
If the trend towards overly provocative advertisements faded after major scandals around fashion photographers such as Terry Richardson or Mario Testino, sexual themes remain in fashion as can be seen in the latest fashion shows and campaigns by Thierry Mugler or Schiaparelli.
Depending on your personal taste, you should include (or not include) sexualized images in your portfolio. But beware, the sexy advertisements of the 2000s are no longer respected. Before creating your mood board, look at what kind of images are being taken at the moment. There is little eroticism in them, the emphasis is more on clothes, and not on their lack. Remember that nude women are not fashion photographs if the image is about the woman rather than the fashion.
Beauty and Perfume
Steven Klein’s latest Isamaya Beauty campaign has pushed the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed. Although, if Klein films it, it’s sure to push and stir controversy. This particular campaign is on the other side of sexual content in beauty and fragrance ads. Kim Kardashian is known for her talent for creating ads with a little something extra. That was true in the following KKW Beauty announcement.
There are other times when sexual content is not a good idea. Here are some examples:
taken too far
There are instances where sex in appropriate genders goes too far. Sean John’s “Unforgivable Woman” commercial shows a rather disturbing scene of date rape. There’s definitely a smart way to push the boundaries of what’s allowed. However, you must remain within the legal framework for this.
The same goes for Dolce & Gabbana’s “gang rape” ad, which shows several men and a woman on a large rooftop in an ominous pose. It ran for a limited time in Esquire and a few other magazines, and was immediately pulled. Critics as well as the general public said the ad clearly referred to a “raped woman”. While their entire SS/2007 campaign featured groups of people in a salacious setting, it was the image of “gang rape” that broke the camel’s back. While there are other events that have worsened the ad campaign, the gist remains the same: portraying gender in a questionable way will come back to haunt the brand. Naturally, the ad campaign brought bad publicity and sales plummeted.
Sex is an important part of some of the most successful advertising campaigns. At the same time, it is also responsible for some of advertising’s biggest failures. Making the connection between pushing boundaries and offending is often difficult. That’s why before planning suggestive shoots, you should spend a lot of time looking at what’s current. Attitudes towards sex change every year and you need to follow the trend.