Unilever Bans Sexist Ads But Does Sex Still Sell?

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“Sex sells.” Everyone knows that, or at least that phrase. From the scantily-clad model writhing around in the sand because her perfume smells unbelievable, to sexually arousing yoghurt, selling sex always works – doesn’t it?

For centuries, sex and sexism have been coupled within advertising to create an easy-to-execute, manipulative dance: where people, mainly women, are objectified by parading around in an alluring way to sell a product.

Here’s an oldie worldie example.


Cringe. Don’t worry though, because here’s a famous ad you may remember from 2015.




Look how far we’ve come!

Being the lowest carnal denominator, sex’s appeal in advertising comes from its general association and ability to shock. People have sex, people want to be attractive to the opposite sex in order to have more sex, but traditionally, no one talks about it – it’s naughty. Downright taboo.

So, with that in mind, it may seem surprising that on the 22nd June 2016, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Keith Weed, announced that Unilever – which, at £6 billion annually, is the second largest spender on advertising globally – would be banning the use of ‘sexist advertising.’ This is after Unilever’s own studies showed that 2% of women in adverts were represented in intelligent or managerial roles, and 40% of women polled said they did not relate to adverts at all.


Is this another big whoop for 21st-century feminism? ‘Wow, that Keith Weed, what a stand-up guy’. ‘That Unilever, what a gentleman’. As feminist and equality enhancing as these moves appear, they’re also just a clever business move. Studies from Ohio State University in 2015 showed that sex doesn’t actually sell, anyway. In fact, the use of sex in advertisements distracts from the product. Neither is the move by Unilever a big risk, as the use of ‘real’ ‘relatable’ women has already proved a notable rise in sales from their own ad campaigns, such as Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign.

Right now, sitting in a near-dark lounge. The light from the TV causes straining on the eyes, and waiting – during every ad break of TLC’s ‘Undressed’ – for a sexist advert to appear and tell us how we should be in the kitchen or something, cooking whilst our hair is swooshing, and that we should be losing weight – in a bikini, perhaps.

After 24 minutes worth of TV adverts, only one could be described as mildly sexist (by the way, it’s the Müller Light yoghurt one: where a tanned woman in a bikini just realises that the reason why she’s so sexually attractive is because her yoghurt is “FAT FREE?” So if we all eat Müller Light yoghurt, ladies, we’ll be ‘Beach Body Ready’ without even noticing.)


So, sexist adverts are still hanging around, even though they’re rarer than ever. But sex-themed ads it seems, like the Mean Girls scene where a girl talks about her wide-set vagina and heavy flow, have people (thankfully) asking “why are you even here?”

When polling passers-by on the street, sex wasn’t a big selling point, in fact, it was hardly a selling point at all.

Seeing as many of the more offensive sexist and sex-fuelled adverts target men, it was refreshing to note many men don’t find them appealing. In a poll of 50 men of varying ages, humour came out most popular, followed by being able to relate and innovation. No one chose sex. In fact, when implored further, the idea of sex in advertising seemed to bring out a sceptical side. Harry, 20, remarked: “A woman in a bikini holding a chainsaw? I wouldn’t want to buy the chainsaw, I’d just think she’s really dumb not to wear proper protection when holding a chainsaw…”

55% of the 50 men prefer the new Lynx ad to the old “The Lynx Effect.” When asked why: “I dunno,” says Ashley, 24, “I think the new ad makes me want to buy Lynx more, ‘cuz it’s more realistic… but the old one’s still a classic. It’s more memorable, and makes a guy feel good, or at least want to feel that good, when he puts it on. Pretty unrealistic, though, I guess.” But what about the objectification of women in the older Lynx ad? “Yeah, there’s no need. Plus, I think the new one captures a less macho and more real side to most men.”




On asking 45 women, the #ThisGirlCan ads from January 2016 came out on top in terms of favourite ads on television this year. Women began moaning after a morsel of Müller’s Chocolate Pud Corner, though. “It’s so stupid. The TV thinks I’m stupid,” Mona, 34, complained, “I mean, am I going to look, sound and feel as good as Nicole Scherzinger does when eating some chocolate yoghurt thing? I don’t get it. What is it trying to say?” Thus, the admittedly odd moans from yoghurt adverts

Would sex ever be palatable, or even engaging, in advertising? After years of sexual oppression, the Western world has finally reached a climax of sexual liberation. The life-changing stir of Princess Leia in a gold bikini 33 years ago isn’t worth batting an eyelid, for today, siblings are having sex on Game of Thrones, or Geordie Shore members are half-naked and humping on a sofa. We’re used to sex now. Like charity ad campaigns – worthy causes though they are – too much sex on screen is fatiguing, desensitising and boring. It loses its ability to shock, its interest falls flat. Then chuck in the stats showing sexualised ads don’t even sell products effectively, and you’re left thinking: “What is the point?”

The solution isn’t all that simple. Despite misogyny and sexism being so prevalent in sexy ads, eradicating sex from television altogether is unnecessarily retrospective. The grass wasn’t greener when there was less sex on television, and the sexism was even worse.

Perhaps Britain should learn from the Scandinavian model. Since 2008, Norway and Denmark have legislation banning sexist ads. Rather than allowing ad companies to exploit sex willy-nilly, using it at every paid-for ad-space opportunity, nudity in adverts is only allowed when the advert’s form follows the function of the product. Thus, a nude woman can be moaning suggestively when using a shower gel, because she’s in the shower. You’re supposed to be naked in the shower. It still doesn’t address the objectification of the woman though, so the legislation seems redundant. It merely appeals to conservative audiences, who don’t wish to witness naked bodies on telly all day.

Plus, people like looking at sex. Take the vast majority of Tumblr and Instagram accounts dedicated to the sexually appealing human form as a mere example. From nude exhibitionist photography to topless models lounging about in black and white on their days off, people enjoy looking at the beauty of the human form. In advertising, this is evident when scrolling through lingerie brand ‘For Love and Lemons’ Instagram. However, unlike adverts of the past, the scant-clad models are photographed in a way that’s appealing to women. There are no men involved, no need for them to impress anyone but themselves. Thus, the selling point is not wearing the underwear or swimsuits for a sexual partner, but to make you feel good.

Thus, there’s no need to divorce sex from advertising entirely. It just needs reframing and restraining. Nixing the sexism from the equation is the first step. Women don’t need to be objectified, and men don’t need to be force-fed machismo, misogynistic ad material, in order to buy a product. Rather than the counter-productive Scandinavian model, why not just have a little faith in humanity? People don’t need sex in adverts for sex’s sake. They can get that from the vast library of sexual content on the Internet. People don’t want to see less sex either, social media is partially fuelled by the desire for beautiful, or graphic, sexual imagery – to the delight of both men and women. In much advertising, though, vulgar, immature and lazy schoolboy humour has dominated for far too long. Rather than portraying men as macho MEN and women as objects, why not just portray us all as people? Then, us people can figure out what we actually want for ourselves.





Words: Mimi Davies

Tags: #Unilever #sexist #advertising #sex #sells #sexism #gender #equality #feminism #adverts #television #social media 

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