Selling With Sex On the Web

Sex sells Nikon ad

Sex has been used to successfully sell products as early as 1890 when W. Duke & Sons became the leading cigarette brand by including trading cards featuring scantily clad women in their cigarette packs.  Many decades of positive reinforcement later, selling with sex has become commonplace, with boundaries being pushed as far as societal morals allow.  Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller even wagers that all of our consumer choices are motivated by our pursuit of primal desire, for procreation or otherwise.

How has selling with sex manifested itself on the Web?  Webcopyplus recently spoke with Melody Nieves, blogger and marketing enthusiast behind, a blog dedicated to exploring the role sex plays in marketing, for her take on sexy advertising online.

How is sex being used to sell products on the Internet?

Selling with sex on the web comes in many forms, including attractive women and men on website ads, sexual innuendos, subliminal messages in slogans, and blatant manipulations of images to appeal to societal standards of beauty.  From a sexy vixen in a bikini selling video games to a standard attractive and friendly looking customer service girl, sex is everywhere on the Web.


Online, this marketing tactic is most easily recognized in imagery rather than in subliminal form.  Internet users are bombarded with hundreds of advertisements daily, so an ad that stimulates the slightest sexual arousal has the best chance of being noticed.

Sexy marketing tactics have existed long before the Internet, but they’ve certainly become more accessible with the addition of the Web.  The Internet just provides another channel for delivering this popular form of advertising.

The recent viral success of the Old Spice commercials, featuring a good-looking, half naked male actor is an example of a successful campaign that uses sex to sell.  Have you seen any that have failed?

What I love about the Old Spice commercials is that they cleverly poke fun at the stereotypes in sexy advertising and it’s always rewarding when a campaign can pull off sex and humour.  The viral status of the commercials proves this is a winning combination.


One of the poorest recent examples of using sex to sell is the entire campaign from Reebok Easytone. Both the commercial and the ads blatantly overuse sex so much that the viewer doesn’t realize what is being sold.  This campaign is a classic case of when a company goes too far, almost desperately so.  It’s hard to check out the sneakers when the camera is pointed at the woman’s butt the whole time.

Is it morally wrong to use sex to sell?  How do you determine boundaries and ensure that certain sensitive markets aren’t offended?

I think if you ask any opinionated person if using sex to sell is wrong they will probably say yes. But morals don’t sell products, marketing tactics do. Morals change throughout the centuries because of what will be publicly accepted and acknowledged by society.


Since it’s so easy for businesses to market with sex online, the real question is how far they’re willing to push the limits of morality to sell a product.

In order to effectively market with sex you have to consider all of the following:

  1. How far are you willing to go?
  2. Does selling with sex work cohesively with the product’s appeal or brand reputation?
  3. Is the campaign suitable for the audience?

For example, McDonald’s — a brand built on customer loyalty through generations of childhood memories — does better using Ronald McDonald than scantily clad Paris Hilton eating a burger, which was used in recent Carl’s Jr. commercials.

Businesses can take the safe route with something as simple as an attractive spokesperson, or decide to push the limits, keeping in mind that doing so may result in disconnect from audiences with strict morals and religious beliefs.


How far will the boundaries be pushed in terms of using sex to sell online?

I think in general using sex to sell is moving toward a path more dangerously perverse.  Markets from every industry are pushing the limits of the amount of skin exposed before an ad is yanked.  Some of the best campaigns balance sex and humour as a fun way to neutralize any odd feelings about the sexy aspects of the ad in view, like Old Spice.

The boundaries are being pushed further and further.  Had Paris Hilton displayed herself as she did for Carl’s Jr. a century ago, that same commercial would have been banned and deemed pornography.


When society gets over its adolescent thinking toward the human body, who knows, the sex we see in today’s advertising could pale in comparison to what we see in a couple of decades.

Are marketers going overboard with sex, or is this just foreplay? Share your thoughts!

3 responses to “Selling With Sex On the Web”

  1. Melody says:

    I love the old picture you were able to find to show how far back it really goes…I look forward to more collabs with Webcopyplus =)

  2. Dave Lee says:

    The Nikon photo rocks! I think it refreshed their brand.

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