Sex in advertising or sex sells is the use of sexual or erotic imagery (also called "sex appeal") in advertising to draw interest to and to help sell a particular product. A feature of sex in advertising is that the imagery used, such as that of a pretty woman, typically has no connection to the product being advertised. The purpose of the imagery is to attract the attention of the potential customer or user. The type of imagery that may be used is very broad, and would include nudity, cheesecake, and beefcake, even if it is often only suggestively sexual.
The use of sex in advertising can be highly overt or extremely subtle. It ranges from relatively explicit displays of sexual acts, to the use of basic cosmetics to enhance attractive features.
Sex has been utilized in advertising since its beginning. The earliest forms are wood carvings and illustrations of attractive women (often unclothed from the waist up) adorned posters, signs, and ads for saloons, tonics, and tobacco. In several notable cases, sex in advertising has been claimed as the reason for increased consumer interest and sales. The earliest known use of sex in advertising is by the Pearl Tobacco brand in 1871, which featured a naked maiden on the package cover. In 1885, W. Duke & Sons inserted trading cards into cigarette packs that featured sexually provocative starlets. Duke grew to become the leading cigarette brand by 1890 (Porter, 1971).
Woodbury's Facial Soap, a woman's beauty bar, was almost discontinued in 1910. The soap's sales decline was reversed, however, with ads containing images of romantic couples and promises of love and intimacy for those using the brand (Account Histories, 1926). Jovan Musk Oil, introduced in 1971, was promoted with sexual entendre and descriptions of the fragrance's sexual attraction properties. As a result, Jovane, Inc.'s revenue grew from $1.5 million in 1971 to $77 million by 1978 (Sloan & Millman, 1979).
The advertisements for Clairol hair dye during the 1970s, which asked the double entendre question, "Does she... or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure", were another famous use of sex to sell products.