Campaign50: Sex and advertising over 50 years

Flake: old ads took a somewhat 'soft porn' approach
Flake: old ads took a somewhat 'soft porn' approach

Sex has always been a marketing aphrodisiac. If people really do think about it every seven seconds, it's bound to sell, isn't it?

Cadbury’s Flake unveiled its famously sexy TV ads at almost exactly the same time as Campaign launched its first issue but, unlike Campaign, the chocolate bar’s suggestive shots and overflowing baths didn’t last quite long enough for a 50th celebration; they were binned in favour of something more contemporary in 2010.

By then, the "Flake girl" had clearly become an anachronism. But even in the #MeToo era, it’s not always so easy to navigate the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

It is amazing to think that, back in 1970s, Flake’s soft-porn approach was deemed appropriate. Meanwhile, the Sure "Sweat test" had a young woman scaling a series of phallic obstacles in search of her man; and Denim aftershave – "For men who don’t have to try too hard" – was a sensual tale of a woman slowly unbuttoning a man’s shirt.


It may all seem a bit Benny Hill to us now but, at the time, it was lauded as the height of creative sophistication.

Sex became aspirational in the 1980s, when Bartle Bogle Hegarty positioned Häagen-Dazs as a tool of seduction and undressed Nick Kamen for Levi’s. The big shift in these ads was a female empowerment narrative, which continued into the 1990s with Boddingtons’ supremely sexy star, Melanie Sykes. The Boddingtons campaign was the first to ever show a woman holding a pint of beer.

The most seminal year for sex in advertising may well have been 1994, when "Hello boys" and the Diet Coke break both smouldered into view. From there, culture grew ever less inhibited and advertising followed suit, spurred on by fears of media fragmentation and hopes that sex would draw attention like a magnet (and then, of course, go viral). In 2003, boundaries were pushed hard by Gucci – a press ad featuring a woman with her pubic hair shaved into the Gucci logo was considered a good advertising investment by a luxury brand.

Social media spread the sexy genius of Old Spice’s "The man your man could smell like" in 2010, turning the tables on the sexist stereotype while taking notice of the changing mood by engaging with a younger audience on Twitter and Facebook. There was growing unrest about brands such as American Apparel, whose 2014 campaign featured overtly sexualised school girls in inappropriate outfits; unsurprisingly, the backlash lead to the firing of the chief executive.

Old Spice

Protein World provided a watershed moment in 2015 with its "Beach body ready" posters and, in the US, burger chain Hardee’s abandoned its famously sexy – and sexist – ads with a new "Food, not boobs" marketing strategy in 2017.

And, finally, the #MeToo movement gained momentum last year and introduced a complex and sometimes contradictory new era to navigate.

Sex isn’t going anywhere. It is no coincidence that Love Island is a phenomenon, with contestants flaunting their conventionally ideal bodies. Perhaps what makes the show acceptable in the post #MeToo world is the equality of power between the women and the men. From an advertising point of view, it also allows brands to use sex to sell through media proximity rather than featuring sexual images themselves.

The most progressive definition of using sexiness to sell is where brands are embracing a much more diverse vision of what people would view as "sexy". Both Smirnoff’s "Open: and Asos’ "Go play" are sexy in their own way, but feature unconventional characters whose confidence and individuality are what makes them attractive.


Sex being sex, there will always be people who are offended to see it in advertising or anywhere else. But, in 2018, we’ve left the world of the phallic Flake well and truly behind and developed a broader understanding of what turns us on, giving rise to a whole new joy of sex in advertising.

Neil Henderson is the chief executive of St Luke’s

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