Early Sexuality In Advertising

Today, most people have this misconception that sexual advertisements are a recent thing. If you ask a few people when the first sexual advertisement was seen, they might say during the sexual revolution in the 1960s or a bit later on. However, sex has been selling early as the 1870s, a hundred years before what most people assume.

One of the earliest advertisements that was a tad risqué was the Pearl Tobacco poster portraying a naked woman. This poster was printed in 1871 to advertise the company’s brand of tobacco and tobacco products. Although it had absolutely nothing to do with tobacco, it sure gained a lot of attention since nothing like this had ever been done before.


A few years after Pearl Tobacco took this brave step, another followed in their footsteps. W. Duke & Sons, another tobacco manufacturer, noticed that this strategy helped with Pearl Tobacco’s sales and decided to go another step further. In every cigarette package came trading cards featuring pictures of sexually appealing women. Not only did these trading cards increase revenue, it allowed W. Duke & Sons to become a leader in the tobacco industry.  An image of a few of these trading cards can be seen below. Although we may not find these to be “sexy” today, back then they made jaws drop.


Cigarette companies were not the only ones this method of advertising was working for. Early in the 1900′s, soap companies used this strategy of “dirty” fun in their advertisements. Pears Soap’s famous poster of an attractive witch, riding a broom stick naked, was first seen in 1899. Again, this did not promote the soap in any way other than using a beautiful woman to boost sales.


Another large soap brand that used sex to sell was Ivory Soap, however, they did it differently then ever seen before. During the time of World War I, an advertisement showing an image of sailors bathing together on a deck. Not only did this ad portray pleasant looking men, it showed them all together. This was the first “Sexy” ad for Ivory Soap and was very different from their usual posters showing children and babies having baths. Not only was the image shocking, the text was even more extreme… “We all had a bath…about 25 being under the hose at one time…It certainly seemed like home to rub in the mild Ivory lather from head to foot and then feel the delightful exhilaration following a brisk rub down”.  One can only image the thoughts and images these words could put into peoples’ heads during that time in America.


Sexual images in advertising were becoming very common after the war and advertisers began trying something new, something to stimulate the brain in a different way. Sexual innuendoes started popping up in ads to create a different effect in peoples’ minds. A sexual image was not thrown at them, just a slogan or saying that could be looked at in two different ways: the literal meaning, and the sexual meaning. This was up to people to image and to figure out where their dirty mind could take them.

By the 1950s and 60s a subtle approach to sex in advertising could be seen everywhere. An ad emerged for Skinless Frankfurters, a hot dog without that nasty skin to hold the meat in… “haha”. This was the exact joke the ad featured. “Skinless Frankfurters are sure to be tender because they have no skins!”. An ad like this in our day right now would stir up some giggles because well, I don’t need to explain it, but imagine how people perceived it in the 50s.  They loved it just how we love it today. Because sex was still somewhat of a sensitive subject during that time, sexual innuendoes were a great and fun way for people to express themselves since it did not necessarily mean anything sexual at all.


By the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution had begun and had lasted till the 80s. The Sexual Revolution was a social movement that went against the traditional behaviours towards sex and sexuality. During this time, society started seeing relationships outside of the heterosexual norms. Premarital sex, contraceptives, public nudity, and pornography followed one another as this “sexual liberation” occurred and sexual freedom flourished. With all these things slowly being accepted by society, the sexuality in advertisements reached a whole new level.

As the 80s and 90s rolled around, sexuality in advertisements became less subtle and much more frequent. One of my favourite sexual advertisements is the 1988 ad for Mickey’s Malt liquor. Not only is Mickey’s delicious, this ad from the late 80s is also pretty tasty. Promoting its “big mouth” opening, the ad shows a woman’s half naked body, but where is her “big mouth”? Because the hot body is in the image, we automatically assume the “big mouth” refers to hers, however it clearly has nothing to do with her. The woman and the words “big mouth” put together creates a dirty vision in the consumer’s mind.


One thing advertisers and companies have learned from Pearl Tobacco’s naked lady is that sex does sell. It works because people like seeing sexual images and create fantasies in their heads. It makes us want to buy a product. Not because of what the product offers us but because we can connect it to something sexual and fun thanks to an advertisement. Sex in advertising is not going anywhere, in fact it’s becoming obvious and more out there to stimulate our minds.


Jacobsen, M. & Mazur, L. (1995). Sexism and Sexuality in Advertising. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Retrieved from http://www.uky.edu/~aubel2/eng104/paranoia/pdf/jacobsen.pdf

O’Barr, W. (2011). Sex and Advertising. Vol. 12, Issue 2. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/advertising_and_society_review/v012/12.2.o- barr.html

Reichert, T. & Lambiase, J. (2008). Sex In Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sivulka, J. (2011). Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising, 2nd Ed. Cengage Learning.

Soley, L. & Kurzbard, G. (2013, May). Sex In Advertising: A Comparison of 1964 and 1984 Magazine Advertisments.

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