A shirtless man lounges on a large couch while two attractive young women recline next to him. A text message appears: “Hahah a light threesome never hurt anyone.” Where might this scene be from? An adult novel, an X-rated movie?
No, it’s a new Calvin Klein ad.
The brand known for risqué promotion has adapted its advertising for the digital age with a new jeans campaign that features young people sexting, or sending sexually explicit text messages.
Each ad in the campaign contains a provocative picture, the words of a sexually charged text message and a tempting tagline: “raw texts, real stories.”
There’s little question from the ads that the company endorses more than denim.
In comparing ads from 100, 50 and 25 years ago with ones like the current Calvin Klein ads, it’s easy to see that sexual content has become more explicit. You also may have noticed that the number of such ads has risen. For instance, a 2012 study from the University of Georgia that looked at advertising from 1983 to 2003 showed the share with sexual imagery almost doubled.
Such ads raise two questions: one, are they effective? And two, even if they are, do they cross a moral line that shouldn’t be crossed?
Through a 25-year career that’s spanned industry and higher education, I’ve had many opportunities to consider how marketing and ethics interact. Based on my experience, I’ve come to believe that what’s best for business and what’s moral are not mutually exclusive.
Rather, organizations can excel both economically and ethically. In fact, the two goals are often complementary. For instance, Corpedia’s Ethics Index, comprising publicly traded companies rated high for ethical behavior, outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 370% during a recent five-year period.
Does sex sell?
First off, does more carnal creativity mean that “sex sells”? Not necessarily. For example, a 2010 study from Texas A&M International University did find that people were more likely to remember commercials that contained sexual or violent content. But that doesn’t mean they were more likely to make a purchase.
Memory doesn’t always predict purchase intentions or other positive behavior. While people remember positive experiences, they also remember things they’d rather forget, like car accidents, relationship breakups and kidney stones. Memory only leads to sales if it’s tied to a compelling reason for purchase.
A classic study conducted by Baker and Churchill in 1977 found that advertising models’ physical attractiveness increased viewers’ attention as well as their positive evaluations of the ads. But at the same time, it found that sexual content in ads did not affect respondents’ deeper cognitions, thus rendering physical attraction ineffective in gaining the target market’s acceptance of the advertising message.
Similarly, Parker and Furnham in 2007 realized that sexual ad content had no effect on viewers’ abilities to recall details of television commercials. The study also found that women recalled ads without sexual content better than they did sexualized ads.
A more recent study conducted in July at Ohio State University discovered an even more conflicting effect. Violent and sexual content in ads again succeeded in grabbing attention, but it also overshadowed other important aspects of the marketing effort, including the product being promoted. As a result, the researchers concluded that sex and violence in ads actually impeded product memory and lessened purchase intentions.
But what if sex does “sell” for some companies? Maybe erotic advertising is effective for Calvin Klein and certain others who continue to use it for their target markets. Although companies may find exceptions for what works, there are no exclusions for what’s ethical.
Why ethical advertising matters
Unfortunately, some advertisers and other marketers have spurned morality for decades to the detriment of the industry.
For instance, when asked to “rate the honesty and ethical standards” of individuals in various fields, respondents to a December 2014 Gallup poll placed advertisers near the bottom of the list, only above car salespeople (another group of marketers) and members of Congress. Such disrepute, however, shouldn’t be the case.
Of course, most people don’t want to be thought of as unethical, so such a reputation can discourage morally minded people from entering the discipline. Also, people generally don’t want to do business with individuals they don’t trust.
Although I know many others share this conviction, marketing unfortunately has lacked a common paradigm for identifying and addressing the field’s moral issues. For instance, each year Ethisphere announces its selections for “The World’s Most Ethical Companies,” which many of the winners are eager to promote. The organization’s 140-question application, however, is hardly a tool that marketers can readily use to help make daily ethical decisions.
This absence convinced me last year to develop a straightforward model of marketing ethics called Mindful Marketing to evaluate marketing strategies and tactics, including morally suspect ones like sexualized advertising.
Simply put, to be considered “mindful,” marketing practices must be two things: effective, that is, they accomplish their marketing-related objectives; and ethically sound, that is, they don’t invite any obvious moral compromise.
Together these two goals form the foundation of what I call the “mindful matrix,” a visual representation of the concept and its four categories of marketing: mindful, single-minded, simple-minded and mindless.
Like a bad case of food poisoning
So where does sex in advertising fall within the mindful matrix? As mentioned above, there may be times when sexualized ads are effective at accomplishing their marketing goals. More often, however, the sensual promotion fizzles, distracting target market members from product benefits and failing to create stakeholder value.
In terms of societal values, the erotic images that such ads often employ undermine decency and respect by objectifying individuals (usually women), fueling unhealthy sexual appetites and reducing human existence to the satisfaction of sensual desires.
Yes, sexually charged advertising grabs attention, and it is often memorable, but so is a bad case of food poisoning. Like other mindless marketing, oversexualized ads leave an ill feeling for many consumers and may sicken an entire society.
Will there come a day when advertising is automatically considered honest and marketing tops the list for trustworthiness? That remains to be seen, but right now Mindful Marketing invites marketers and consumers to share in this vision of ethical exchange and to help move forward to such a future.