Since the inception of advertising, advertisers have realised that sexual appeal and the desire to find a partner were more effective than any discourse about the advantages of purchasing a particular product. Consequently, the depiction of sex has been a key element in any sort of advertisement.
Always bordering between what was inappropriate and what was not, advertising has been flooded with pin-up girls (mostly ‘white’ and slim) ready to offer to (mostly) males a paradise of the senses. This proliferation of references to sex and sexuality has been constant, increasing hugely in the last 15 years to become an important part of our daily social encounters. Today, the relationship between marketing and sexuality is even more extended and sophisticated, with ‘global sexualising’ being a phenomenon that has spread to most social and cultural spaces.
Despite the reconfiguration of gender roles experienced in the West over the last half century, advertising has remained anchored within a conservative and sexist frame. On the one hand, advertisers have attempted to devise campaigns addressing a self-sufficient and independent woman, while on the other they have repeatedly argued that society demands from them the display of nude women selling themselves through a pornographic lens.
In advertising, sex is presented to the viewer, yet he/she (more often it is a ‘he’) is denied this access to sex, so triggering his desire. Advertisers, then, hope that the consumer, not being able to access ‘having sex’ with the model, craves for the product to complete the circle of desire (Gifford Broke, 2003: 143).
The pattern is endlessly exploited: the object of desire is a woman promiscuously presented for men’s enjoyment. She interacts with the audience, directly addressing him through flirtatious and provocative body language.
In a world saturated by visual culture, advertisers are under pressure to produce more provocative and flashy images to attract the viewer’s attention. Within this trend is a deliberate attempt to combine sex and transgression, with artistic elements to make it acceptable to the majority. McNair (2003) or Taflinger (1996) call this trend: ‘phornography’. Another term frequently used is ‘porno-chic’ or ‘porn chic’, understood as a depiction of sexual rites through a combination of art and glamour. To make pornographic images appropriate in advertising they must be filtered first, then ‘sanitized to remove its graphic rawness’ (McNair, 2002: 67). Through this new filter the misè-en-scene, the poses and vocabularies of porn culture, have gone mainstream. Advertising has appropriated these images where sex is not real but staged and where worn out clichés, nude women in pornographic poses, continue to appeal to men.
Two hundred years have elapsed since the advent of advertising and the same assumption remains: a woman’s body is a commodity that must be on display to be sold. Yet some authors see a change in the representation of women. Rosalind Gill points out that there is a ‘shift from sex objects to desiring sexual objects’ (2007: 84). This tendency is clearly exemplified in advertisements for bras, such as those for the brand Wonderbra. Within this discourse, sexual objectification is understood as something with which women freely engage to obtain power (Heywood, Leslie & Dworkin, L. 2003: 78). Others see in this argument a high level of risk. In Merchants of Cool (Drenzin, 2001), writer and producer Douglas Rushkoff believes that advertising is disguising old sexual stereotypes and presenting them in a new wrapping: that of women’s power. He argues that the women represented in advertising are still trapped in their bodies and he compares this with conventional pornography.
The people represented in these misè-en-scenes are not representative of a broader society: the actors/models are always young, always slim, and almost always white; the scenes represented are sex-saturated yet devoid of the erotic. Over exposure to sexy images contributes to the creating of a hyperreal sexuality and a desensitisation of the sex act. The visual orgy of perfect naked bodies offered to us by global capitalism can leave us so satiated that we grow more and more distant from our own desire. Kilbourne affirms that the accumulation of pornographic messages in advertising degrades sex and makes it more cynical. She compares this sex-crazed fashion with fast food: ‘consuming food for which we have no real appetite, we are never satisfied and lose our ability to gauge our own hunger’ (2003: 179). McNair, however, deems that the pornographication of the mainstream subverts sexual stereotypes rather that reinforcing them: ‘Porno-chic … might be viewed as an index of the sexual maturation of contemporary capitalist societies’. (2002: 87)
Analysis of the social consequences of being bombarded by porno-chic imagery requires the carrying out of empirical studies. These studies should address issues concerning the differences between how women and men are portrayed. We have seen recently an objectification of the male body, but do male models’ poses suggest dependence, innocence or vulnerability? Research should also explore what are the effects on people’s lives of the ‘realities’ constructed by media. If advertising is projecting a slender, forever young and hypersexualised society, where do the rest of us fit in?
Carmen Fernández Martín © July 2012
Amy-Chinn, D. (2006). This is Just for Me(n): Lingerie Advertising for the Post-Feminist Woman. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(2): 155-175.
Brooks, L. (2000). Anatomy of Desire. The Guardian, 12-12-2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/dec/12/gender.uk?INTCMP=SRCH, accessed 17-06-2012.
Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the Media,Cambridge: Polity Press
Goodman, B. (Director & Producer), Dretzin, R. (Producer), & Rushkoff, D. (Correspondent & Consulting Producer). (2001). Frontline: The Merchants of Cool [Motion Picture].Boston,MA: WGBH.
Guifford Brooke, C. (2003). “Sex (haustion) Sells: Marketing in a Saturated Mediascape” in Sex in Advertising (Eds. T. Reichert & J. Lambiase),Mahwah,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp: 133-150.
Heywood, L. & Dworkin, L.S. (2003). Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon.Minneapolis:University ofMinnesota Press.
Kilbourne, J. (2003). “Advertising and Disconnection” in Sex in Advertising (Eds T. Reichert & J. Lambiase), Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum, pp: 173-180.
McNair, B. (2002). Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire, London: Routledge.
Taflinger, R.F. (1996). Taking Advantage, You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising. http://public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/sex.html, accessed 27-06-2010.
 Not all “porn-chic” images are accepted, ASA (Advertising Standard Agency) which zealously watches over offensive campaigns ordered to ban an advert for Opium perfume in 2000 because many people complaint that the image was disturbing. In the ad model Sophie Dahl seemed to be giving herself pleasure. According to Libby Brooks (The Guardian, 2000) “the image of Dahl is threatening because she looks as if she knows what she wants” and for many (mostly men) this is not acceptable.
 Amy-Chinn in her study on lingerie advertising points out: “Research with consumers showed that Wonderbra wearers were notable for their self-confidence; they considered themselves unashamed and unafraid of their sexuality and wanted to project an image of being powerful and in control of their lives.” (2006: 162)
Dr Carmen Fernández Martín has degrees in Translation and Interpreting (University of Granada, Spain) and English literature and linguistics (University of Cadiz,Spain). She is currently a full-time lecturer at the Universityof Cádiz. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on contact languages, language attitudes and bilingualism in Gibraltar, and her research interests include also the role of women in Spanish cinema, diachronic studies of sexist expressions in English and Spanish, and the representation of women’s body in the mass-media. Currently participating in an inter-university initiative with the university Abdelmalek Essaadi (Ecole Supérieure Roi Fahd de Traduction) to design a postgraduate course on translation, she teaches historical linguistics, history and culture of English speaking countries and translation and interpreting.
Editor’s Note: Dr Fernandez-Martin’s presentation at the ‘Women in Magazines: Research, Representation, Production and Consumption’ conference held at Kingston University, London, 22-23 June 2012, was entitled ‘Porno-Chic in Women’s Magazines: Comparing English and Spanish Advertising in Written Media’ . This Blog draws on that presentation.