Advertising in general has become absurd; in many cases, viewers aren't even sure what the commercial was trying to sell. With advertising companies running low on new ideas, and competition in the marketplace fiercer than ever, it's no wonder so many businesses will stoop to the use of sex to sell their products, whether those products have anything to do with sex or not. But there are more serious ethical issues at stake. First of all, some experts believe the ubiquitous images of sex in the media lead young people to view sex as glamorous and casual, rather than risky and worthy of serious consideration. Beautiful men and women engaging in sexual behaviors in print and television ads do not suffer consequences for their loose morals; there are no follow-up commercials showing the unwanted pregnancy, the abortion, the broken relationship, the "dumped" man or woman who feels used and objectified, the sexually-transmitted disease, or the life altered forever by an unexpected baby. In addition, sex in advertising can have a pervasively detrimental effect on young women's self-image and feelings of self-worth, as "average" women are constantly forced to compare themselves to ultra-sexy, airbrushed, surgically-altered supermodels. How can a woman feel attractive to her boyfriend when he is drooling over and comparing her to the unattainable ideal, making her feel that it should be attainable? Finally, sex in advertising represents the commodification and objectification of the human body; the exploitation of women (and increasingly men) for the purposes of selling products and promoting consumerism, with no concern given to the sensitive human being underneath that facade. How can women hope to gain equal status with men, and reduce the rates of rape and abuse, when they are constantly reduced to sexual objects, existing only for the pleasure of men?
Ethical Dilemma #1: The Moral Decay of America
It's not just religious fanatics who find fault with the inundation of sexual imagery in advertisements today. Subconsciously, if not consciously, adolescents are particularly susceptible to internalizing messages about sex gleaned from the media. As one critic argues: "Sex in advertising has far more to do with trivializing sex than promoting it, with narcissism than with promiscuity, with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that it is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical" (Kilbourne, 2003). Moreover, sex is no longer a beautiful expression of genuine intimacy and love, but a competition for "Cosmo's greatest lover award," centered around "impulsive gratification, narcissism, distance and disconnection, romanticism, eternal youth," perfection, obsession, infatuation, and lust (Kilbourne, 2003). Issues like honesty, fidelity, commitment, responsibility, and deep emotional connections are completely removed from the concept of sex; this of course is completely unrealistic -- particularly for women. The deep meaning of sex as an expression of love is replaced with emptiness, shallow passion, "inner deadness," and a void that must be filled and refilled like any addiction (Kilbourne, 2003). In addition, sex is so commonplace that men and women become numb to its allure, needing more and more stimulation in order to be "turned on."
The definition of what makes a man or woman sexy can also be irretrievably distorted by sex in advertising. In reality, men and women should be drawn to one another because of physical attraction, but also because of vitality, passion for life, individuality, intelligence, stimulating conversation, and mutual interests and goals (Kilbourne, 2003). The shallow portrayals of sex based on lust in advertising and the media, sends a powerful message that this kind of narcissistic entwinement is the ultimate goal -- to be able to make someone want you so bad that they would do anything to get "it." What adolescents are not learning from this message is that these overwhelming feelings of desire last only weeks or months; afterwards, a break-up is inevitable if there's nothing deeper going on underneath. "Perhaps most important, advertising and the popular culture define human connection almost entirely in terms of sex, thus overemphasizing the relative importance of sex in our lives (and marriages) and underemphasizing other important things (friendship, loyalty, fun, the love of children, community)" (Kilbourne, 2003).
Ethical Dilemma #2: Beauty and Self-Worth
Another disturbing effect of so much media flooded with sexual imagery is the deep-rooted connection young girls and women begin to draw between beauty, sexiness, and self-worth. This is a double edged sword; for those few who can pull it off, they've already reached the top of the mountain and there is no need to seek deeper self-fulfillment and meaning in life. For the billions of females who can't measure up, the onslaught of images of thin, beautiful women can seriously damage self-esteem. Self-worth depends only on superficial beauty, with no mention of virtues such as kindness, hard work, perseverance, or generosity. Studies have found that "the anxiety girls and women experience from feeling unattractive is arguably one of the most pervasive and damaging consequences of advertising," leading to depression, eating disorders, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, narcissism at the expense of maturity, and even suicide (Moore, 2002).
What's worse, advertisers know that if they can target women's insecurities, they can sell more and more beauty products, diet aids, clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. Women are left feeling that "if I just had that eye cream" or "that sexy pair of jeans," the man of my dreams will notice me and "want" me. This is especially dangerous because it's largely unconscious; therefore, these women and girls have no control over their self-esteem except through shopping, dieting, exercising, and staring in the mirror. "We are surrounded by images of young, beautiful heterosexual couples with perfect hard bodies having sex. Women are portrayed as sexually desirable only if they are young, thin, carefully polished and groomed, made up, depilated, sprayed, and scented -- rendered quite unerotic, in fact -- and men are conditioned to seek such partners and to feel disappointed if they fail" (Kilbourne, 2003). Yes, men can suffer ego-blows and feelings of failure if they are unable to attract and keep one of the "beautiful girls." And young men are more frequently falling victim to stereotypes of "buff guys" portrayed in advertisements as well, leading to eating disorders and weight-lifting obsessions (Meganck, 2010).
Ethical Dilemma #3: Commodification of Women (and Men)
Commodification is everywhere, yet many people have never heard of the concept. "A 'commodity sign' designates the joining together of a named material entity (a good, product or service) as signifier with a meaningful image as signified. The entire purpose behind creating these associations is selling commodities. Contemporary 'advertising teaches us to consume, not the product, but its sign. What it stands for is more important than what it is'" (Meganck, 2010). Therefore, the objectification and commodification of women and men results in bizarre and tempting associations between buying a product and becoming or "attaining" the person portrayed in the ad. But when the actual product is purchased, the attendant feelings of being larger than life are soon replaced with disappointment, emptiness, and boredom.
The abundance of beautiful, sexy women objectified in advertising also contributes to "backwards" views of women as objects for sale, unworthy of respect and asking for trouble. Women have worked hard to raise their status with respect to men, but the constant barrage of women as "objects that sell things" is preventing genuine change in men's attitudes toward women. Some researchers suggest that the "commodification of women undoubtedly contributes to the high incidents of rape and physical assault in our society" (Moore, 2002). A rape occurs in the United States every three minutes; the media's portrayal of women as sexual objects for the taking, combined with the pervasiveness of pornography and sexualized violence in society, are only making the situation worse (Moore, 2002).
Other researchers note that the objectification of women and…