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Why It's Unfortunate That 'Sex Sells' in Advertising and in Life

06/02/2014 04:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014
Jason LaVeris via Getty Images

Katy Perry and Madonna posed on the cover of the summer issue of V magazine for a "bondage-themed" photo shoot for photographer Steven Klein. Actor Neil Patrick Harris was completely naked except for a top hat and bowtie on the cover of a recent issue of Rolling Stone. The issue prior featured actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus almost naked except for the cursive words of the U.S. Constitution (and the signature of John Hancock) and many people view it as a "rise" in her combating sexism, as opposed to submitting to it. Now there's more scandalous pictures of her and clowns in GQ.

These cover releases and photo shoots (as well as many more) beg the question: Why is there a need to strip down or be in suggestive poses in order to have your voice heard or your brand seen?

Even though there have been studies which conclude that sex doesn't sell, it is commonly believed that it does. It's a topic that's consistently been debated, and we're left wondering why there continues to be an abundance of over-sexualized, sexist and misogynistic advertisements in glossy magazines and commercials.

Menswear brand SuitSuppy released it's Spring/Summer 2014 campaign complete with bikini-clad women (or not, depending if you click the uncensored version) and fully-clothed men in suits. However, sexist adverts like these aren't new to SuitSupply. When they released their "shameless" advertising campaign in 2010, their photos of women in compromising positions were banned from Facebook.

Other advertisements focus on a woman's physical body rather than her personality, including the following AXE commercial which, as Annie-Rose Strasser says in ThinkProgress, "treats women as a series of body parts instead of a whole person with a brain."

Some celebrities capitalize on the notion that "sex sells" and other celebrities take notice. UK British pop artist Gabrielle says in The Independent:

Miley and Rihanna are young, and the reality is, sex sells. It's horrible but let's not pretend. These young ladies have taken it upon themselves to be more assertive about their sexualities. If you watch interviews with Miley after the twerking thing, this is not a girl who has lost the plot. She's a businesswoman. Madonna did it before her, Gaga's doing it now. Let's face it, Beyonce, as gorgeous and multi-talented as she is, she's done a video in her underwear. I didn't see anyone moaning about that.

Miley Cyrus does sing and act, but overall she doesn't seem to need to do anything except wear controversial outfits (or perform in her bra and underwear) and it's a goldmine for getting attention, getting headlines and getting more people interested. However, if Miley didn't have the "perfect" celebrity body and wasn't born into a famous family, would this "act" still work?

The body image issue in Hollywood is pervasive. In an interview with Self magazine, Amanda Seyfried said:

I try not to look in the mirror very much -- you can't wake up and expect your body to be different than it was last night. You've got to realize that you're living for yourself, not for other people. Nobody's perfect. Only in Hollywood are people perfect and that's because they spend thousands of dollars on trainers and diets and surgeries. That's what we're made to feel like we're supposed to look like but if you put it in perspective, there's nothing realistic about it!

In print advertisements, it's the same idea. Photoshop and re-touching give an unrealistic expectation of how to attain society's idea of beauty and perfection. Photoshop fails have appeared in countless news outlets, retailers, clothing websites, even the Russian Orthodox Church.

The idea that it is on the consumer to know the difference between a "real" image and a "Photoshopped" image might as well be a "brand fail."

However, male model CJ Richards appeared on "Cosmo Live" this past January and talked about the Vogue cover featuring Lena Dunham and the controversy around using Photoshop and made the below statement:

"I feel like it's been going on since the film world," Richards said. "Why would you watch a movie without special effects? You understand that this isn't real. There's Photoshop in magazines and special effects in movies. I mean, it happens. So accept it and know that this is actually a real person underneath all of the computerized effects that they're adding in."

But the thing is, the clothing is real and tangible and can be bought un-touched-up in stores, whereas the models have distorted figures, missing limbs and shrunken torsos, which is not a reflection of a woman or man in any kind of reality.

I don't want superficial things anymore. I'm tired of looking at artificially sculpted bodies with flat stomachs and chiseled abs and tan skin and bleached white teeth.

Everything is blending together. It's boring. It's uninteresting.

It's not "sexy" when a headline teases that an actress "bares all" for an interview. It's not clever when it's advertised that an actor "strips down" for an interview.

I want depth. I want personality. I want someone to be described as beautiful even if they don't have what society deems is beautiful.

Objectifying the human body is nothing new. However, it's absurd to critique people who are at the peak of physical perfection, most notably Olympic athletes. Chloe George writes in for Vagenda, part of the Guardian Comment Network:

... watching the Olympics is a lot about bodies, their amazing strength and agility. These bodies are not objects, they are instruments, with inspiring stories behind them: stories of determination, of truckloads of Lucozade, of millions of mornings of getting up to swim or run or row instead of sleeping in like all the other teenagers. We are wowed by these people's stories. We worship them.

But soon shallowness takes over and we reduce Olympic athletes to superficial bodies. She continues: "This turns quickly from a state of admiration, sexual or otherwise, to objectification, a removal of someone's story (and a close up of their balls). It seems an antithesis of what the Olympics is about -- the individual, their particular achievement."

Shallowness and objectification seems to be the antithesis of American culture. A place that consciously promotes sexist and misogynistic advertisements should not be the same place where you can pursue "the American Dream."

However, there are advertising agencies and fashion brands and big-names in the industry who are striving to create meaningful advertisements and change, in the U.S. and abroad.

In this three-minute spot from Thai Life insurance, it follows the day-to-day life of a regular guy who helps those around him. He realizes the power of paying it forward as when it says in the commercial: "What he does receive are emotions. He witnesses happiness. Reaches a deeper understanding. Feels the love. Receives what money can't buy. A world made more beautiful."

Another thought-provoking advertisement comes from Ogilvy Amsterdam and Dela, a funeral insurance company. From Adweek, this campaign urges people to, while they still can, "say something wonderful" to those who are closest to them.

The first is of a woman who surprises her widowed father by showing her affection by singing a song.

The second is of a devoted husband of more than 50 years who continues to express his love of his wife in front of her water aerobics class.

The last shows an overweight, bullied student who gives thanks to his teacher for helping him "overcome his social awkwardness."

In an effort to show more "real" women in advertisements, American Eagle's young women's lingerie line, Aerie, is showing how the girls are in real life, un-photoshopped and with "flaws."

Aerie Brand representative Jenny Altman, when talking about the unconventional approach in an interview with ABC News' JuJu Chang, said, "We left everything. We left beauty marks, we left tattoos, what you see is really what you get with our campaign."

But is what you see truly what you get? It's a step in the right direction, but the campaign still features young, thin, conventionally attractive women. In a recent study written in The Guardian, advertising in television is "drastically under-representing" to the point where only 5 percent of television advertisements showcase ethnic minorities. There are more plus-size models appearing in magazines more minorities are being featured on magazine covers (though it's still controversial).

Altman continues:

They are still models, they're still gorgeous, they just look a little more like the rest of us. We're hoping to break the mold... we hope by embracing this that real girls everywhere will start to embrace their own beauty. It's a selling point because our customers represent this great demographic and they don't really get to see what girls their age really look like.

In an age where shallowness is revered, where beauty is unfortunately skin deep, will we ever truly see what "girls our age" look like? Beauty marks, dimples, stretch marks and all?

We may never be truly comfortable in our own skin, and people are taking drastic measures to change how they look and perhaps to look more like those photoshopped, artificial images. Eating disorders affect up to 24 million Americans. In a survey of 5th to 12th graders, 69 percent said that pictures in magazines influenced their idea of what the "perfect body" looks like. But the number of people who actually have the body type most advertisements portray as "ideal" is a dismal five percent.

The road to society's definition of perfection is marked with cosmetic surgeries, eating disorders and Photoshop. Maybe it's time to redefine beauty, to incorporate what it's like on the "inside" as well as what's immediately perceived to be on the outside.

The debate around whether "sex sells" in advertising and in life is hurting men and women. In various studies, attractive people get called back for interviews at a higher rate than unattractive people. Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, researched this topic and some of it is referenced below from the Wall Street Journal:

According to his [Hamermesh's] research, attractive people are likely to earn an average of 3% to 4% more than a person with below-average looks. That adds up to $230,000 more over a lifetime for the typical good-looking person, Dr. Hamermesh estimates. Even an average-looking worker is likely to make $140,000 more over a lifetime than an ugly worker.

Women and minorities, who are already lacking in being well-represented, have to fight extra hard against this double-standard to prove they have brains behind the shell of a body. You can pursue the American dream... if you're attractive. You can land the best job... if you are good-looking.

There are so many road blocks in the way of women and minorities pursuing a career that is not in "beauty" or athletics. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains the struggles he faced in pursuing a career in science as a Black man and how that can relate to women. At a panel discussion at the Center for Inquiry, he said:

My life experience tells me that when you don't find Blacks and women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get to where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you've got to come up with a system where there's equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's response starts around 1:01:31:

What if we cleared the roadblocks? If we featured more people who were intelligent first, beautiful second? Is there a way to change the culture of what is beautiful, or to redefine beauty?

Parisian fashion writer Sakina talks about how Elle magazine featured plus-size models on the cover in 2010:

Fashion has created a gap between itself and real women. From skinny, to curvy, to fat, the population is made of very different bodies and the contrast between the women represented in fashion or advertising has been so important that most women don't feel good about themselves. I, too, have had body issues: I tried to fight what I genetically am because I always thought that being beautiful could never mean being curvy.

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe it should be said that your ears are just as important because that is where you hear the words of those around you.

What I'm asking for is variety. I want a real, genuine human being. Though athletes and musicians and actors and actresses' are great, where are the scientists? Where are the professors? Where are the brilliant minds who are changing society?

I want to see people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds and nationalities and religions and ages who have a passion for life and who desperately want to change the world.

We as a society need to stop looking skin-deep and need to actually dive deeper into ourselves and in our culture and find and listen to people who are changing the way things are done but aren't being heard.

We need to give those people a voice.

And they shouldn't have to "bare all" to get noticed.