Sexiness refers to an individual’s outward sexual charm or inner sexual attractiveness that is able to attract attention and induce sexual thoughts in others. As one of the most important forms of advertising, sexual advertisements trigger consumers’ sexual associations, emotions, or impulses by incorporating sexual content to promote brands and products. With the development of technology and the economy, the construct of sexual advertisements has become more complicated. New market trends such as “de-sexualization”, “sexual innuendo” and “over-sexualization” have emerged. However, existing theories regarding sexual advertisements cannot meet the needs of the rapidly growing market. Scholars have not yet reached a consensus on the classification of sexual advertisement. In addition, there are many contradictions in the theory and practice of the sexy effect in marketing, accompanied by a fragmented distribution of research fields. Drawing on studies from psychology, sociology, management, and other fields, this paper reviews the categories, effects, mechanisms and boundaries of sexual advertisements. This paper comprehensively and systematically studies sexual advertisements to provide a reference for both scholars and practitioners alike.
First, this paper classifies sexual advertisements based on three aspects: direct representation, indirect representation, and social relationship representation. We found that sexual advertisements with direct representation may be perceived as immoral by consumers. And indirect representation may be difficult to perceive. Besides, sexual advertisements of social relationship representation can signal social connection and emotion, which can be utilized by the brands. Compared to direct and indirect represented sexual advertisements, the form of social relationship representation is more easily accepted by consumers. That’s why sexual advertisements of social relationship representation are becoming more and more common in recent years.
Second, sexual advertisements are a powerful tool in marketing, but it is also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, sexual advertisements meet consumers’ compensatory needs by attracting their attention, enhancing their positive attitudes, and promoting manufacturers to realize their marketing goals. On the other hand, advertisements that are focused excessively on sexual content may result in attention loss for the brand. In this case, sexual content may be counterproductive to the brand’s long-term image. Direct sexual arousing advertisements and excessive sexual innuendo are easily perceived by consumers as lacking morality, and more importantly, carry certain legal risks.
Finally, sexual advertisements influence consumers’ perceptions in different ways. The explanatory mechanism of sexual advertisement has shifted from consumer cognition and physiological impulses to social benefits. This paper specifically explores the mediating mechanism of the effect of sexual advertisements from four aspects, including consumer cognition, physiological motivation, sexual self-schema and social presence. The study shows that sexual advertisements can evoke consumers’ sexual thoughts and change their attitudes toward the advertised brands. However, these effects vary in different contexts. Accordingly, different product types, advertising contexts and individual traits also have an impact on the boundaries of the effects of sexual advertisements.
As a whole, the concept of sexiness has gone through dramatic changes in recent years. Specifically, consumers are more open towards sexiness due to the changes in social trends and regulations, and the rising social status of women. In addition, the introduction of sub-cultural elements such as anime and manga has enriched the definition of sexiness. In the future, we can focus on these newly-emerged types of sexual advertisements. Moreover, the psychological and social mechanism and moderating effect of sexual advertisements can also be explored in future research. For example, future researchers may pay attention to the perceptual differences in sexiness under different cultural contexts. They may also focus on other interaction effects that could arouse sexual impulses, for example, specific colors and color saturation in advertisements. Also, future research can also explore new channels of sexy content, including AR and VR, etc.