I never fully grasped the extent to which advertisers use sexual imagery to sell products and services until I stumbled upon a Macy’s ad a couple weeks ago. The advertisement promoted a “Hot Summer Sale” and featured a beautiful model in a skimpy bikini sitting on a rock in a pool of blue-green water. A quarter of her bare breasts were visible.
Even more riveting about this image was the way the water lapped at the edges of the model’s bikini bottom. I actually wondered if I was seeing her pubic hair. Her left arm draped across her body while her hand seemingly touched the exposed pubic hair.
The image left little doubt in my mind that the advertising agency was using the promise of sex and a woman’s scantily clad body to lure customers into Macy’s for the storewide sale.
It reminded me of a recent comment on sexual imagery in the media by Michael McGee, M.Ed., the former director of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “So many parents are concerned (freaked out!) about their kids’ media exposure. . .especially on the Internet,” he said. “Lots of sexual imagery, messages and relationship development online that just wasn’t there in their parents’ generation.”
McGee recommends that schools include a unit on media literacy about sexual advertisements on the Internet as part of any sexuality education course. I agree with him, but also recommend that all forms of advertising be examined for their sexual content—no matter how subtle. And the unit wouldn’t only be about ads using women’s bodies. I’ve seen ads showing bronzed men in dark glasses wearing tight jockey shorts, where the viewer can see bulges for the testicles and nothing else.
Parents and teachers need to discuss how the media distorts sexuality, and how it keeps up a drumbeat promoting commercialism and sexual attraction. We may not be able to stop the advertising industry from using sex and bodies to sell products, but we can alert young people about how insidious and potentially destructive these messages can be.