Sex For Sale?  Sexual Content in Television Advertising

Published By Sarah Mohr on march 19, 2015 in media and entertainment

Sex and the Small Screen

Even as an 18-year-old, I was uncomfortable and a bit appalled by the suggestive Hardees’ Mile High Thickburger commercial that aired in 2014. This commercial begged the question for me – when did television become so sexual? According to John Vivian, the government limits on sexual content gradually eased in the 20th century, with the remaining restrictions concentrating predominantly on nudity, profanity and pornography.

Miller Standard Questions –

  • Is it sexually arousing by general local standards?
  • Does it contain literary, scientific, political, or artistic value?
  • Is the sexual activity depicted in a way that is offensive and explicitly violates an offensiveness law?

Unless the content in question answers all three of these questions affirmatively, the content cannot be censored, and this has allowed for the increased allowance of sexual content in television, which we see particularly in advertisements.

Too Much Too Soon?

Dr. Fred Kaeser notes that children have countless opportunities for exposure to sexualized messages every day. It should come as no surprise that most of this exposure likely comes from the seven hours a day on average that is spent watching entertainment television (Vivian 234), an industry rife with advertisements that contain sexual messages.

Does Sex Really Sell?

The old adage “Sex Sells” seems to be the justification for the use of sexual content in television advertising, but does it come with a price? Jillian Richardson of Content Strategist cites research from the University College London and other studies that conclude the opposite. Richardson’s article suggests that:

  1. Sexy ads don’t help improve brand recall,
  2. Audiences generally dislike the use of sex to sell products,
  3. When sex does sell, it sells only to men.

So why does this matter? Are the Hardees’ commercials simply using effective marketing techniques to boost sales directed at a specific audience, or does the sexual exploitation that consumes the advertising industry have more damaging and harmful effects than some may be considering? If it’s not an either/or question, as it well may not be, at what price are we willing to sell the cherished innocence of youth that all of us were once allowed to promote a product?



Content Strategist

Dr. Fred Kaeser

Vivian, John. “Media and Entertainment.” The Media of Mass Communication. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2013. 18 Mar. 2015. Print.