Sex sells and so do sexy men: the objectification of men in advertising

Kraft Zesty GuySource: Kraft

We’ve all heard the age-old marketing mantra: sex sells. While I agree with this statement (to some extent), with the changing roles of women over the past several decades this has become less acceptable; or rather, it’s been met increasingly with more criticism, mainly from women.

As a self-proclaimed feminist (not the man-hating kind), I enjoy sexy ads – when they’re executed tastefully. Whether it’s because I’m not easily offended or I understand the tactics marketers employ to sell products, I’m a fan of watching and looking at ads with beautiful people, especially gorgeous men. I know there’s a fine line between appreciating and objectifying men and women, and sometimes I wonder if we know where that line is. So, I ask you: is there a difference in the acceptance of objectifying women as opposed to men? How do different genders react to sexualized advertising? Is it the same?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say women react much differently than men do to sexual ads. In fact, I’m right.  According to study findings from psychology journal, Psychological Science, “women generally show spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images.” Furthermore, the study found that women were more angry and upset by ads featuring seemingly “cheap” products as opposed to expensive ones. The study’s findings suggest this unfavorable reaction to “cheap” products is because “women have evolved to see sex as a special and prized act.”  Products that are more expensive imply exclusivity, and therefore women are less likely to view the sexual nature of an ad for a high-priced item negatively.

OK, so women aren’t fans of looking at sexual advertisements (what a surprise), especially where other women are “objectified”, but let me ask you this: what happens when we use sexy men in ads? Cut out the “bikini-clad”, hyper-sexualized women and insert a gorgeous man (or several of them). This man could fit any woman’s fantasy; he’s the stereotypical stud-muffin. How do women feel about sexy ads now? I’m inclined to think many women wouldn’t have a problem appreciating the view or commenting on how good-looking, sexy, or dreamy this guy is. Why is this different? Why is this double standard acceptable? Why is it OK to “objectify” men?

Let’s watch some of these advertisements:

Hefty Ultimate

Kraft Zesty Dressing

Liquid-Plumr

Sauza Tequila

While there are always going to be critics, it’s safe to say these ads are received with much less hatred and anger. Why is that? What makes these ads more acceptable? I have a few theories:

They’re harmless

I think it’s safe to say that men don’t generally care if they are “objectified” based on their physical appearance. Women have always been a bit more sensitive to the way they’re portrayed. Speaking as a woman (and based on some research I’ve done on feminism), it’s hard to group us all together.  Some women, like me, don’t take offense to sexual ads and take them for what they’re worth – an advertisement – nevertheless, to each his (or her) own.

Anyways, ads like the ones above are harmless, from any point of view. No one is going to take these seriously, and if they do, I’m sorry but watch again. They’re for pure enjoyment. They’re not making fun of anyone or anything; they’re simply taking every day, seemingly unsexy aspects of life and adding an element of fantasy, in a truly harmless manner.

They’re humorous

In addition to being harmless, these spots are humorous. Yes, they’re a bit goofy and completely far-fetched, but that’s what makes them so enjoyable.

Humor is one of the most difficult cognitive experiences to create successfully. With humor, it’s a given that your message won’t speak to everyone, and that’s OK. Appeal to your audience; determine what they find humorous and cater to that.

In the case of ads with sexy men, the audience is clearly women (and some men, of course). Women enjoy looking at good-looking men. Add in a comical element and we’re hooked!

They’re obscure

I don’t know about you, but my plumber has never looked like this guy, nor has he ever spoken to me in a sexy voice, clearly alluding to some sexual innuendos. But, this is what makes it so obscure. Things like this don’t happen. Do you have three gorgeous garbage men personally coming to take out your garbage? I didn’t think so.

Kraft, Hefty and Liquid-Plumr take ordinary, everyday products and spice them up in unusual ways, and I applaud them for it. Adding sexy to un-sexy products is not easy, but taking the opposite approach to marketing these products is what makes them memorable.

Men don’t care if they’re “objectified”

Men rarely see being “objectified” as a bad thing and I don’t think objectified is even the right word. Men see an ad with exceptionally good-looking men for what it is – an advertisement.

It’s no secret men don’t think about things the way women do; they’re just wired differently. Offending a man is not the same as offending a woman; the reasons for being offended are often very different. This may be due to everything women have had to overcome to be seen as equals, but either way you look at it, an ad with a sexy man will always be more acceptable than an ad with a sexy woman.

Should we use sex to sell?

Like most things, there’s a time and a place for everything and it’s no different for using sex to sell. If a product or service could benefit from adding a sexy element to an advertisement, go for it. However, keep your audience in mind. Using sex to sell is more about your audience than it is about the product or service.

Think about who’s going to buy your product or service. Will they appreciate a sexy take on it in your advertising? If the answer is no, you probably don’t want to go the sexy route. The road less traveled is often a sexy one, and depending on your audience, your product and your openness to criticism, sexy ads aren’t always the easiest to execute. While I’m not discouraging the use of sex to sell, there’s a fine line between keeping it tasteful (harmless, humorous, and obscure) and offending the masses.

Try it out. As a business owner, you know your audience best and you can make the right call. Use a focus group consisting of your audience and even those who don’t typically make up your target audience. This will help determine if the ad entices or insults. Just remember, you won’t always make everyone happy, nor do you need to. In the end, it comes down to your judgment and what you believe works best for your brand.

11 comments
jdem930
jdem930

Hmm! Maaybe the reason that people are outraged by female, and not male, objectification is that female objectification takes place WAY more often than male objectification, and is so societally ingrained to the point where women in general are now seen by people's BRAINS as a series of parts, rather than a whole person? (People's brains now view women as a series of parts, but view men as whole people. Look it up.) Not saying male objectification is OK, just answering your question as to why people aren't in such an outrage over it. It hasn't been systematically ingrained in society and media and literally impacted people's brains.

villogglad
villogglad

Ok, I understand what you're saying "naasking" and I can agree to the fact that emotional response is not enough to distinguish the unethical from the ethical. However, what's considered ethical is a sociocultural construct too, and what's considered ethical in a given society is not necessarily considered ethical in another one. Also, what's ethic in a society does not become so automatically, it requires a certain momentum, a certain majority among the population. Sure, one could argue that harming a comatose victim is ethical because it does not harm the patient in any way, but by adding the "majority" argument this is not a valid conclusion. Even if you or some other persons in that society think this is completely ok the majority won't and it is thus considered unethical by society. 


The same social construct apply to most of our ideals, values and expectations in general and in this context, to gender expectations especially. For the past decades women have been depicted mainly as sex objects, bereaving them of the personality behind the body (see LaRancePlz's response below, to which I agree). This is a major difference between displaying sexy men versus women in ads and is the mechanism that make women objects of desire rather than subjects of appreciation (which does not separate the body from the rest) and it is what make us react so differently to men versus women in ads. Women are much more often "slut shamed" for modeling in ads - I can testify to that myself. As a said I'm a modeling for charity and we have a calendar of "hunks" each summer. None of the guys, including myself have ever experienced things that can be described as detrimental. Until five years ago we used to have a female calendar too which was another story... Our female models were harassed way too often and the buyers of the calendar were too often giving shameful comments. 

LaRancePlz
LaRancePlz

The important thing to remember is that when women get objectified - people (both men and women) judge and perceive them literally as if they were merely sex objects and the person behind is forgotten - disregarded, beyond how much skin they're showing, how they're obviously asking for it - where's the self-respect? Etc. but when men get 'objectified' almost nobody forgets the person behind all the shiny flexing muscles and he's not seen as lesser for showing skin.

villogglad
villogglad

I know this is an older post by now, but just wanted to revisit to shed light on "naasking"s answer. I understand your statement "naasking" but I don't agree. 


1. No, these arguments don't apply to women in the same manner. They key to understand this is context and perception of what has been interpreted as the female role for the past decades or so. Ads containing scantily clad women sement their positions as sex objects whereas men have never really been seen as sex objects. The feminist argument digs deeper into expectation and behaviour dictated by society and is really too elaborate to cover in a comment, but in short there argument goes something like this; Just because applying some action upon X is considered a detrimental act in general it doesn't mean that applying the same action upon Y is detrimental to Y as well.


2. I'm not saying its unconceivable that male objectification will ever be a true problem but then the opponents must take action and do research themselves, present their arguments and not expect others to front them. 

naasking
naasking

Just so you know, every argument about how "harmless" or "humourous" the men's ads are applies equally to ads featuring women. And just because men don't currently mind, doesn't mean they *shouldn't* mind. Before the rise of feminism, it's not clear that women would have minded either. Eductation is a powerful tool, and if objectification started hurting men the way it hurt women, then I think men would start minding a whole lote more.

villogglad
villogglad

Whops, I was going to write some more but it was suddenly posted...Anyway, based on the previous sentence (that guys ask me for tips) I think that many people view the male ideal as healthier than the female ideal is for women. Sure, as a model I can testify that it's hard work in the gym and with diets and to think of how you look for the female gaze all the time, especially in advance of photoshoots. Still it's more natural for a guy to have some muscles and low body fat percentage than women being extremely thin. Personally I feel great both in front of the camera and in general.

villogglad
villogglad

I think you're right about men not caring that much. I'm a charity male model and we rarely get complaints from men during our campaigns. On the contrary I often get questions about how to get a "model physique", what to eat and what how to keep fit. 

naasking
naasking

@villogglad "However, what's considered ethical is a sociocultural construct too, and what's considered ethical in a given society is not necessarily considered ethical in another one."


Moral and cultural relativism are inconsistent ethical positions, sorry to say. The vikings believed Thor caused lightning, but the Greeks believed it was Zeus, while we believe it's caused by friction among particulates in the clouds generating a static charge. Are you suggesting that, logically, you should give equal weight to each of the above "explanations" when deciding your belief about lightning?


Your argument would imply that a "fact" about lightning is also a sociocultural artifact, but just because people express different beliefs about natural phenomena does not imply that objective natural facts do not exist. Analogously, just because people express different moral beliefs does not imply that objective moral facts do not exist.


Finally, something cannot be wrong simply because of majority rule. For instance, the majority rule in Germany started two world wars, but I don't think you'd argue that the people of Germany acted ethically in doing so simply because they all believed it was right at the time.


"but by adding the "majority" argument this is not a valid conclusion"


An argument that is logically valid for 1 person, does not suddenly become invalid given 1,000,000 people believing the contrary, and vice versa. *Belief* does not entail *truth*.


As for LaRancePlz's post, I see her type claim made often, but I've never seen any data to support it. In fact, if we simply assume the premise that men do the majority of objectifying, then I'm quite certain that gay men objectify sexualized men just as often as straight men objectify sexualized women, which immediately refutes LaRancePlz's point that nobody forgets the person behind the sexualized male body.


Which isn't to say that harm results from this objectification, in which case either objectification itself isn't harmful and is thus not unethical (if harm is our only criteria), or it remains unethical even though it does not cause harm (which most feminist philosophers argue for).


I agree slut shaming is an inconsistent position to hold unless it's applied equally across gender. There's no question that our culture holds many such inconsistent opinions, and I never denied that women currently suffer more harm from objectification than do men. But again, there is little reason to consider harm as the only factor in classifying an act as unethical, because harm is circumstantial.


Suppose we establish a habit of overlooking male objectification simply because it does no harm in our society, but we're suddenly hit by a plague that wipes out 75% of Earth's male population. Now men are the minority and women hold all the power. If objectification truly is a dehumanizing act, then this new status quo has those in power feeling perfectly justified in dehumanizing a minority. How long until it's really abused as women were in past centuries?


And arguments that women are inherently more nurturing or empathetic are nonsense. There is no scientific basis for believing this as opposed to believing any such behaviour is a cultural perception/conditioning, conditioning which would no longer apply in the new world ruled by women.

naasking
naasking

@villogglad Sorry, your take on objectification is simply inaccurate. Objectification is wrong period, because the very act of objectification is inherently dehumanizing, according to feminism and other moral philosophies. Trying to argue that it's ok to objectify men because of some vague historical context is special pleading.


That men have never previously been seen as sex objects, does not entail that we ought to encourage people to start thinking of them as sex objects, which is precisely what objectification does.


That the objectification may not be deterimental in practice today is also irrelevent to this question. Direct harm is not the only metric of morality in ethics.

CourtneyChristman
CourtneyChristman

@naasking @villogglad


I understand where you are coming from and it would be silly of me to say that no man has ever been offended by being objectified by a sexy ad. I think as a whole, men are less offended and don't necessarily find it dehumanizing when they're portrayed overly sexy. 


That said, women have historically been objectified and portrayed in demeaning ways, more so than men - in advertisements as well as in real life. Women have been hyper-sexualized and demeaned to the point where even today we struggle to maintain equal footing with men in many instances. 


The historical portrayal of the differences between men and women, expectations and the roles they should play have certainly paved the way for the feelings women have when she or another women is clearly objectified. 


I'm not condoning the objectification of any sex, and my post's title might not deliver that message. However, I think there is a time and a place for sexy ads, and there is a way to do it tastefully.

naasking
naasking

@CourtneyChristman @villogglad You're still missing the point. Emotional considerations do not delineate all acts that are ethical from those that are unethical. An act does not become unethical just because someone is offended by it (or harmed by it), nor is it ethical just because someone is not offended (or not harmed).


I doubt very much that you would consider the rape of a comatose patient to be ethical, and yet this person clearly does not suffer emotionally, nor do they come to any real harm.


Causing emotional suffering is perhaps a sufficient indicator of unethical behaviour (debatable), but it's not necessary to cause emotional suffering for behaviour to be unethical.


I'm not commenting on whether sexy ads are or are not ethical or appropriate, I'm merely commenting on the consistency of the arguments presented. The argument that objectifying women is not ok, but objectifying men is ok because they don't mind is a special pleading fallacy. You could argue that this inconsistency can be justified as a matter of etiquette, but you can't argue that the inconsistency can be justified ethically.