Sex sells: The objectification of women in advertising

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

Artistic or overly erotic?

This advertisement for Levi's, a brand not typically associated with elegant fashion, features a Christophe Gilbert photo of an extremely thin woman seductively covering herself with paint. The group exhibition "Women on View" focuses on the the eroticization of the female body in advertising photography from the 1940s until today.

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

A provocative pose

One frequently used and often-criticized motive of advertising featuring women is the objectification of female body parts. In this 1998 advertisement for a lingerie brand, photographer Marino Parisotto depicts a scantily clad woman lying provocatively with her face completely covered.

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

Living the dream

A women dressed elegantly in red, a color associated with passion, holds an elegant candelabra. The photo by German photographer Ellen von Unwerth is an example of how contemporary advertising often portrays a mood and lifestyle, instead of clearly showcasing the product itself — in this case, vodka.

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

Licence to shock

French photographer Guy Bourdin was one of the most famous fashion photographers of the 20th century. His images were featured on the editorial pages of Vogue, as well as in many advertisements. Many of his images of women are highly sensual and packed with shock factor.

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

Sand and sun

In reality, a perfume bottle like the one shown here has little to do with being on the beach. But in the advertising world, a small bottle becomes a symbol of a desirable lifestyle, paired with a tanned female in a submissive position. When this photo was taken by Jean-Daniel Lorieux in the 1980s, sexual imagery was used in advertising more explicitly than it had ever been before.

Sex sells: Female bodies in advertising

Suggestive safari

Photographer Franco Rubartelli created some of the most memorable photos for Vogue magazine in the 1960s. This image from 1968 features his second wife, Veruschka von Lehndorff, in a dress by Yves Saint Laurent. While such photos were said to capture the "free spirit" of the time, the "safari" style, rooted in colonialism, and the objectification of women in ads, are both condemned by many today.

The Berlin show "Women on View" examines how photographers like Helmut Newton have depicted women as objects of desire. Despite today's gender rights movements, advertising remains in the Dark Ages of gender cliches.

"Sex sells" is one of advertising's oldest myths. The group exhibition "Women on View: Aesthetics and Desire in Advertising" at Berlin's Chaussee 36 gallery examines how the female figure has been used in advertising throughout the decades.

Featuring photos by some of the most famous names in fashion and commercial photography, the images are meant to spark a dialogue about the eroticization of the female body in western advertising and its impacts on society. While researchers have found that the "sex sells" doctrine may well be false, its prevalence in media has long been criticized for promoting unattainable beauty ideals.

Despite the women's emancipation movement of the 70s, and even in the age of #MeToo, gender clichés remain painfully present in the advertising realm. From early product advertising in the 1940s to hypersexualized female forms in the 1990s, scantily clad and unrealistically perfect female forms still flit across television and computer screens, billboards and the glossy pages of magazines today.

The mechanisms of sexual advertising

An exploration of the effects of sexualized advertising is posed by sociologist Esther Loubradou in a paper published in conjunction with the exhibition. Loubradou points out that the advertiser's main goal is to persuade the consumer and attract attention. To do so, she continues, an ad must make our brain react. Sexual advertising "appears to have all of these ingredients" by titillating emotional areas of the brain, transgressing taboos and appealing to basic needs.

While some of the most dramatic images belong to the fashion world, a range of products, from alcohol to perfume, have historically presented women as objects of lust and desire. More and more often, advertisements are moving away from explicitly selling a product, promoting an idealized lifestyle instead.

Prompted by eroticized pictures by famous actresses like Marilyn Monroe, advertising in the 1960s and 70s often featured "partly raunchy" gestures, writes Helmut Newton Foundation curator Matthew Harder in a forward to the exhibition.

Today, the internet quickly disseminates images to viewers, making brands and advertisers fight even harder for attention. This race for views has led to taboo breaking, specifically in the world of fashion photography.

Photographers like Terry Richardson, Harder points out, took images to the point of obscenity, featuring women in poses which many critics have called exploitative and perverse. Richardson's career quickly plummeted once #MeToo movement broke; the photographer now faces a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations. 

Advertising socks in Lolita dress: a work by Ellen von Unwerth

While Richardson's case as well as those of  influential photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber have damaged the reputation of the fashion industry, obviously not all photographers specializing in erotic femininity have done so to exploit their models.

German photographer Ellen von Unwerth, for instance, says she has a feminist approach to he work: "The women in my pictures are always strong, even if they are also sexy. My women always look self-assured. I try to make them look as beautiful as they can because every woman wants to  feel beautiful, sexy and powerful. That's what I try to do."

Related Subjects

The #MeToo movement started spreading over a year ago; it still remains to be seen if mentalities in advertising will radically change in the years to come. For now, the advertising world appears to be a long way off: "Even though studies document a decrease of salacious portrayal in advertising in recent years," writes Harder, "every third advertising image featuring a woman can still be regarded as sexualized."

The exhibition "Woman on View: Aesthetics of desire in Advertising" is on show in Chaussee 36 gallery in Berlin from February 2 through April 27, 2019.