NARS Cosmetics’ newest commercial renews an old question: does sex sell?

Heydi Ortiz, Managing Editor

If you’ve seen the newest NARS Comestics commercial, then you know sex sells. Or does it? Companies and corporations have long used sex as a means to attract their consumers. But why are we so attracted to this type of marketing, what’s the history behind it, and does it really even have an effect on consumers?

The makeup brand, NARS, is notorious for using sex in their product names and advertisements, but what about others? 

Yeah, it turns out sex is commonly used when selling…food. Yes, food. You might recall a few provocative Burger King ads here and there which feature the words “It’ll blow your mind away.” If it seems crazy for a food company to want to use sex as a way of drawing attention, marketing professor Dr. Natalie Mitchell says it’s really not.

“Sex unfortunately sells, and you even see this with musicians. With a lot of recording artist who are women, it’s a package deal,” said Mitchell.

“I think advertisers need to be strategic in how they use sex. There’s a scale right? There’s sex and then there’s scandalous…there’s two different extremes and so subtle suggestions of sex may be fine, but there needs to be an opportunity to where it’s not trashy or distasteful, and in some cases I do think it can tarnish the brand. Makeup can kind of straddle that line, but I don’t think it fits with other product categories like food,” said Mitchell.

According to a study found in the International Journal of Advertising, the first appearance of an ad with sexual appeal was in 1871, when the Pearl Tobacco Company featured a partially nude women on the package of their cigarettes. 

Even though history demonstrates that sex sells, some studies say commercials and ads which feature sexual appeals or innuendos are more memorable, but do not necessarily help an individual recall the ad.

While the International Journal of Advertising’s study found that ads containing sexual appeals were more remembered than ads that did not, it also found that there wasn’t much of an effect when it comes to brand recognition and recall.

So, when it comes to using the concept of sex in advertisements how far is too far?

“There are guidelines that kind of manage– I know the American Marketing Association has guidelines and our society has shifted over the last few years. We hear a lot of vulgarity in language and nudity and things of that nature. As far as TV, how far is too far? A lot of times there isn’t a lot of sexual innuendos; it’s more in print advertising. So with television–because the audience are minors and children, things of that nature–there’s a more firm boundary in terms of quality and content in advertising,” said Mitchell.

“Everything that you see in advertising is strategically planned, and so when this ad is produced it has been reviewed multiple times.”

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