That’s the refrain anyway.
But whose sex is sold? And to who? If it was simply that sex sold, we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture. Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men. So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex” We’re selling men’s sexual subjectivity and women as a sex object. That is, the idea that men’s desires are centrally important and meaningful, and women’s are not (because women are the object to men’s subjectivity).
That women’s object status and men’s subjectivity is sold to women in women’s magazines (for example, Cosmo and Glamour always feature scantily clad women on the cover) in no way undermines the idea that men’s sexual subjectivity is being sold. It’s just that it’s being sold to all of us.
For example, if this ad was selling Tango with sex, they’d both end up naked in the fourth frame, no?
The new ad spots for M&Ms also illustrate this nicely. m&ms have been anthropomorphized in advertising for some time. There is only one female m&m and she is, by no accident, the green M&M. If you remember from elementary school, green is for horny. That, also, is no accident.
So male M&Ms come in multiple colors, flavors, shapes, and personalities, but female M&Ms are just sex objects.
In the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue this year, M&Ms went with the theme (found here):
The ad campaign extended beyond Sports Illustrated:
To sum, if it was simply “sex sells,” we’d see an even pattern of sexualization. But we don’t. More often than not, it is women who are sexualized. What is being sold, really, isn’t sex, but the legitimation and indulgence of (supposedly heterosexual) men’s sexual desires.
Kirsti M. alerted us to an M&M advertising campaign in Australia, where you could vote for your favorite color. All but one of the M&Ms are depicted as males (again, the female is Miss Green).
Here is a screenshot of the page for Red, a satirical take on a Marxist revolutionary:
Some highlights from the text:
Favorite quotes: “The revolution is now!”
Favorite books: “100 Steps to World Domination”
Weight: “Perfect for my shell”
Here is a screenshot of the page for Miss Green (notice the others aren’t Mr. Blue or Mr. Red; only the female M&M has a title):
Highlights from the text:
Miss Green, working the polls.
About me: I may have a pretty hard shell, but I assure you I’m sweet on the inside.
Favorite quotes: “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”
Favorite books: “How to Work the Polls”
Interests: Right now I’m focusing all my attention on the top position.
Campaign policy: All beaches to be nude beaches.
Age: Let’s just say I’m experienced.
So again we see the sexualization of the female M&M (she’s “experienced,” focusing on the “top position,” she’s “working the polls” while wrapping her go-go-boot-clad legs around a tree in the manner of a stripper on a stripper pole, her arms and legs are much longer and thinner than the other M&Ms’ are).
In this vintage ad (1970s?), it is clear that it is his “plans” for her that are being appealed to:
NEW! These ads for hearing aids are apparently aimed at men only:
Other great examples include these posts with ads promoting organ donation, an air conditioning technical school, selling pasta, vegetarianism, aviation, cars, war, travel, dentistry, food, more food, houses, and mortgages. (To see the reverse dynamic, click here and here.)Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
mordicai — March 2, 2009
This is sad but true; though I do think that there is a healthy objectification of men bubbling in the corners; I'd like to think it is on the rise, but then I think about Magnum PI's chest being on TV all the time in the...whenever that show was on, & I start thinking we are still par for the course, & I just see progress because I'm in the middle of it. Argh delusions of perspective!
SarahMC — March 2, 2009
By "sex," what's meant is "women's sexualized bodies." Women are the sex class. Our bodies are actually synonymous with "sex." Of course men are the subjects - the default human beings. The male gaze in action.
Bagelsan — March 2, 2009
I'm sorry, but did she just *rip her SKIN* off in that Sports Illustrated ad? I can't get past that. :p
KK Slider — March 2, 2009
Since when is green for horny? What?
Green stands for envy. I've never heard of green being the color of arousal.
Crystal T — March 2, 2009
Shouldn't the M&Ms' arms and legs be brown, just like their chocolate insides? They show the Green M&M with her candy shell off, so I'm assuming that's supposed to be like her clothing, but then her arms and legs are white-beige and not brown?
I'm not surprised, sadly.
Sorbid — March 2, 2009
I think the "green M&M=horny" comes from an urban legend that says "Green M&Ms are an aphrodisiac".
See the Snopes link for more info:
Dubi — March 2, 2009
I'm with KK - this has to be some weird cultural thing. Green for horny?
Frankly, I believe you could come up for a reason why this is sexualization for any colour they'd choose. It's another case of first assuming that there's a certain intention, and then hunting for proof.
Also, don't forget to throw in homophobia. I think it's critical in understanding why men are absent from such sexualizing contexts: I don't want to be thought of as gay (or question my own heterosexuality), so I don't want to be caught looking at a scantly clad man.
colby — March 2, 2009
The Green M&M Premiums commercials freak me out. She's seductively eating M&Ms. Never has cannibalism been so sexy!
Sara — March 3, 2009
The question that comes to my mind is "does a sexualized image of a womon sell equally well to men and women both?"
I seem to recall reading at once point that the reason 'public announcement' sort of recordings (i.e airplane demos and automated answering systems) are typically done with female voices is because there is a larger positive response of both sexes to a female voice. (Yes, that's nearly pure anecdote, but I cannot in the slightest recall where I picked up that information.)
withoutscene — March 3, 2009
@Sara At the same time I have heard that radio hosts are so often men because deeper (read: men's) voices resonate with people and aren't "grating." Let's hear one for gendered social construction of voices!!!
Feminist Avatar — March 5, 2009
Women's sexualised bodies are sold to women as well as men, because women are taught out whole lives that women are the sex class. Despite recent attempts to imagine the sexualised male body [aka the diet coke man], we don't really know what this is, what it should look like or how to sell it. Even if you are a heterosexual women, you buy into the sexualised women's body as something desirable, attractive- as something you want. These adverts are not really exclusively selling male desire- they are selling desire, which in our culture is personified in the female body. Female desire of men is culturally irrelevant to women as well as men, and it is so because the ability to desire is a powerful action, denoting ownership and possession. Men cannot be desired in this way as it removes their subjectivity and makes them objects.
Becca — March 8, 2009
Great point, fem. avatar and even in the rare circumstances where men are sexually objectified it's hardly a true turning-of-the tables.
Because in reality a stripped down male is not as sexually vulnerable as a stripped down woman. He doesn't need to fear sexual assault, harassment, rape. Lack of respect/dignity. Not being taken seriously. Being battered as a domestic object. Men just don't have as much to fear from objectification. So their complaints that "men are treated like sex objects too" in the minority of cases in which it occurs rings pretty hollow.
And why would women want to go down that road? As if all we can do is imitate instead of innovate. When women have been "permitted" or encouraged to express their desire we're offered up a pale imitation of male sexuality (Chippendale "dancers," "Playgirl" (a huge flop) as if we don't have our own unique sexuality.
I honestly think those were ideas some clueless men came up with as a way to get our sex industry dollar. Or justify what they were doing by throwing us a non-threatening crumb they knew didn't really offer a comparable turn-on. Will there ever come a day when "sex" doesn't have to include the "objectification" of either gender?
Until then we'll be surrounded with images intended to remind us constantly of this: that men are entitled to visual and physical access to the bodies and sexuality of others. Whenever they're horny, lonely, bored, angry, whatever.
And as long as that "right" is unchallenged and handed down to another generation of boys (and girls) we'll never put a dent in the societal and individual tragedies resulting from its acting out in sexual assaults, abuse, prostitution and human trafficking.
Anonymous — March 9, 2009
Lisa — March 9, 2009
As a woman it is easy to feel trapped into this society that sees only our sexual image, but I choose to not be objectified. I consciously choose to dress and act in a way that encourages respect for me as a person.
napthia9 — March 11, 2009
"And why would women want to go down that road? As if all we can do is imitate instead of innovate. When women have been “permitted” or encouraged to express their desire we’re offered up a pale imitation of male sexuality (Chippendale “dancers,” “Playgirl” (a huge flop) as if we don’t have our own unique sexuality.
Of course, it's not necessarily the content of stuff like Playgirl photos, but the context in which those images arrive. (eg "ideas some clueless men came up with as a way to get our sex industry dollar. Or justify what they were doing") After all, lots of people assume that the differences between male and female sexuality is emotional content versus explicit physicality, but why not assume that the difference is between the perceived authenticity of the images as female-created images or that the images remind female audiences of sexism's invulnerability too much to successfully arouse them?
WTF M&Ms? « random babble… — March 11, 2009
[...] WTF M&Ms? By Ouyang Dan Categories: random babble Tags: oy w/the poodles already, sex, WTF? Via Sociological Images: [...]
malfeasanceses — March 11, 2009
@Crystal T: It really makes you notice the blanket skin color being white, doesn't it? That was really a mistake -- either an M&M's skin is really chocolate-colored and their limbs shouldn't be peachy, or they are white, and the second ad is seriously HER SKIN RIPPED OFF.
Malay chakladar — March 11, 2009
Rebecca — March 13, 2009
The tango ad really infuriated me--it's perpetuating the notion that partner dance = a chance to feel a girl up. No, thank you. And again, it places the onus of sexual responsibility and flagrancy on the woman!
As a dancer, I already have to deal with enough of this shit during classes; and seriously, "Dance lessons. See where it gets you"?!? Not far if you're my partner, buddy--try that with me, and you'll get Capezio-ed in the crotch.
Clementine — March 20, 2009
Oh god do I hate those M&M ads. Since when did pieces of candy become sexual beings?
Sociological Images » WHAT WE’VE BEEN UP TO BEHIND YOUR BACK (MARCH 2009) — April 1, 2009
[...] more images of how the green “female” M&M is sexualized (sent in my Kristi) to this post. Also related to food: We added a link to the mock commercial for Powerthirst 2 to our original [...]
Sociological Images » WHAT WE’VE BEEN UP TO BEHIND YOUR BACK (APRIL 2009) — May 1, 2009
[...] added a vintage ad to our sex sells post. This one tells men that if they don’t buy Firestone tires, they won’t get laid. [...]
BABE ELLIOTT BAKER » Axe it all! — May 5, 2009
[...] an article written by Lisa on Socialogical Images : Seeing is Believing, you can see the female hot [...]
Anonymous — June 11, 2009
was fur ein kack
saskia — June 23, 2009
Is there a chance that i can get the original from the red m&m "the redolution is now"?
My best friend birthday is coming up, and she is loves this poster!!
Please let me know asap!
Sociological Images » Sex Sells Autism Awareness — July 3, 2009
[...] Sex sells, I guess. Or, as we’ve discussed before, women’s sexual objectivity and men’s sexual subjectivity sells. [...]
kamila — July 13, 2009
ami gusta m&m"s y mi tin ne nami cas y mi ta comendo e y e ta dushi mare tur dia mi por tin nan paso mi a bisa caba cu e ta dushi ok?? y tambe mi no kier pa nan no bay nuca bon ayo
Sociological Images » What We’ve Been Up To Behind Your Back (July 2009) — August 1, 2009
[...] added some very scandalous ads for hearing aids to our “sex sells” [...]
Martina — August 2, 2009
The hearing aid ads are a set of four - the 2 that you posted and 2 more with men on them. One is of a man's face and the other is a shirtless male model (it's right outside my house). I can't remember the slogan on it but I'd say it's basically as sexed up as the ones with women on them. So yes, they may be sleazy but I think they're supposed to be aimed at both sexes.
What Does “Lust” Look Like? » Sociological Images — August 10, 2009
[...] thus, we are presented with a female object of desire. Three choice posts on the topic can be found here, here, and [...]
Citizenparables — September 2, 2009
"These ads for hearing aids are apparently aimed at men only:"
Well, those two may be, but the ad campaign also include two equally sexy ads featuring male models. This is an error I'm noticing a lot on this site. I'm going to presume that it's through lack of time rather than willful selection.
Interestingly, perhaps, one of the male ads carries the text "Men never listen. Still, it's nice to know they can." which, as well as being fairly obvious copy for a hearing aid product, does perpetuate a stereotype.
Yes, one of the male model ads is a close-up head shot (the other being a front-on naked torso, low slung pants) but I would suggest that
a) the advertisers believe that their female customers find faces sexy to a greater degree than their male customers and, more importantly,
b) the 'below the surface' message of the ads is that all the models are wearing the product - a hearing aid - which is barely visible, even in a headshot.
The intention, beyond the surface attention-grabbing sexuality, is to argue that hearing aids are no longer big beige boxes worn only by the elderly. Hearing problems are affecting people younger and younger (thanks, rock n roll!) and rather than suffer through it due to vanity, the ads suggest that the vain amongst us (who are people too) can address their medical issue while still appearing young, sexy, edgy etc etc.
I think that, when we're going to dig beneath the surface of 'sex sells' to look at socio-political issues raised, we'd be wise to also look beneath the surface to see if sex is in fact an intrinsic and legitimate part of an advertisers message, rather than just gift-wrapping, as in some of the other ads.
kaju — December 6, 2009
And the problem is what?
Real Bears and Fake Boobs » VWOM Blog — January 16, 2010
[...] If it were simply “sex sells,” we’d see an even pattern of sexualization. But we don’t. More often than not, it is women who are sexualized. What is being sold, really, isn’t sex, but the legitimation and indulgence of (supposedly heterosexual) men’s sexual desires. Source [...]
Why I don’t like booth babes. « CYBERPUNKS NOT DEAD — July 2, 2010
[...] for women. When people say that “sex” sells, what they invariably mean is that it sells to men; I’ve almost never seen a picture of a male booth staffer who was dressed specifically to be [...]
Traiasca Razboiul! | Fishington Post — October 29, 2010
[...] el a preluat agresivitatea si teritorialitatea stramosului lui. Lucru evident pana astazi, cand sexul si razboiul sunt cele doua lucruri care vand cel mai [...]
2Advert — November 25, 2010
Okay so I'm this male marketing student that just needed to do a report that summarizes a marketing related article. I search "sex sells" because that's where my synapses road pointed me prior to my morning cupful. Now I'm as confused as ever because of all the perforations this comment section has added to my appreciation of the advertising business. Granted M&M eating kids should not be bothered by the sexuality of the chocolate they eat but if I had to decide if sex had a place in non-sex related sales and marketing I'd still vote yes as long as ..... subtle ..... good taste... ...Thanks for helping me work that out.
The Gendered Gaze | Hourclass — February 15, 2011
[...] the planet btw) there is a nice little introduction to the concept of a gendered gaze: Last year in a post about the truism “sex sells,” I asked: “But whose sex is sold? And to who?” “If it was simply that sex sold,” [...]
Gendered Reactions to Male and Female Nudity | One Cowboys Way — February 17, 2011
[...] year in a post about the truism “sex sells,” I asked: But whose sex is sold? And to [...]
Five Pointed Questions: Dr. Lisa Wade & Dr. Gwen Sharp (Sociologcal Images) | Change Marketing — March 7, 2011
[...] A post I did interrogating the truism “sex sells” expands on this point: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/03/02/sex-sells/ [...]
Controversies and Corners… of Ethics and Aesthetics (well spiced up with a lot of politics) | Canon — March 21, 2011
[...] the adultification of young girls, an adultification that looks suspiciously like child porn, given the sexualization of adult women. New York Magazine reports that the girls are 6 years old. Don’t miss the lipstick, high [...]
My Own Private Guantanamo — April 5, 2011
[...] Even if you accept this explanation at face value, there’s another question: Yes, but whose sex gets sold? The answer is almost always women’s. Just as in mainstream media, men are rarely sexualized [...]
Mike — April 5, 2011
In my experience... the tango ad is more attractive to women if the man has his clothes on. The women I've known find the image of a successful, dashing man in a well-cut suit much more attractive than a guy with no pants on - it's part of the whole image of what is attractive about going dancing. Men don't wear suits or tuxes to a night out because *we* like them (by and large).
The writing is on the wall | My Illustrative Life — May 2, 2011
[...] state of (complex-submissive) sexualisation/objectification to me (EDIT: And, obviously, to other people). I want to GIVE BACK by making a comic that’s about its audience observing men’s [...]
Rebecca — May 23, 2011
I didn't read the tire ad as his plans for her at all. I read the "you" and "your" as being plural, speaking to the couple on a romantic beach vacation.
The Dreaded Booth Babe Discussion « Zee's Blog — September 9, 2011
[...] includes telling their exhibitors NO when it comes to booth babes or using heavy doses of ‘sex sells’ in their advertisements. And really, its not that hard to both have women in your artwork and ads [...]
Men, Women React to Male/Female Nudity | BroadBlogs — October 12, 2011
[...] all heard the truism “sex sells.” But whose sex is sold? And to [...]
Should sex be “public?” « Aleksandr Jak — February 23, 2012
[...] sex education, but we use sex to sell everything from clothes, vacuum cleaners and toilet paper, to car tires, M&Ms and hearing aids. It may not be possible to scale back the forces of capitalism, but I think we should try to [...]
Anonymous — March 8, 2012
If sex sells then sell baby sell. Http://Koolagan.com
Should sex be “public?” « Jericho Aleksandr Jak — March 15, 2012
[...] education, but we use sex to sell everything from clothes, vacuum cleaners and toilet paper, to car tires, M&Ms and hearing aids. It may not be possible to scale back the forces of capitalism, but I think we should try [...]
Big Data Bubble « HKTV Blog — May 14, 2012
[...] viable companies do not need a Big Data solution to tell them that sex sells anything and everybody wants money. Lately, however, there has been a big marketing push extolling the [...]
Radek Piskorski — March 18, 2013
green means horny??
Kim Kardashian Really That Interesting? | The Guardian Express — June 8, 2013
[...] Source 1 [...]
Sex Sells | Nonzero — November 29, 2014
[…] –Lisa Wade at Sociological Images […]
The Dreaded Booth Babe Discussion | Zaewen — January 3, 2015
[…] includes telling their exhibitors NO when it comes to booth babes or using heavy doses of ‘sex sells’ in their advertisements. And really, its not that hard to both have women in your artwork and ads […]
How you, yes you, can resist the evil lure of WOMEN’S (objectified) BODIES! | A humble social justice cleric — October 21, 2015
[…] don’t have the power of magical bodies. We have the power of objectified bodies. Our bodies are the chosen symbol for sex. Yes, all of our bodies. The hint of nipple represents happiness, fulfilment, intimacy, and […]
Sex Appeal? — January 9, 2016
[…] Wade, Lisa, “Sex Sells”, Sociologic Images, The Society Pages, March 2009, [Web page], View at: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/03/02/sex-sells/ […]
Feminist Sex Shop - ASSIGNMENTS HELP — November 6, 2020
[…] “Sex Sells” […]
Feminist Sex Shop – DATA POPES — March 2, 2021
[…] “Sex Sells” […]