However, he feels that it’s not a route he’d follow again. “I generally steer clear of using images because they’re such a minefield – the power of suggestion is much more intriguing and powerful. The thing is with book covers, they’re all shouting so much that your eye catches the ones that whisper.”

A soft sell

There are degrees of sex in any design, explains Heller. “I think there are covert, subtle, suggestive approaches,” he says.

“There is softcore and hardcore. There is erotic and raw. There is humour too.” He adds: “I don’t think it’s an issue of right or wrong, but there are extremes.”

So how should a designer avoid the pitfalls of sexy design? “Address it in a way that’s appropriate to the message,” says Heller. “If you are trying to use sex appeal to whet appetites then do it brilliantly.”

Be honest, he says: “If it is matter-of-fact, be good at it. Make sex fit the need.” David Pearson cautions, “It has to be appropriate. If you’re using an overblown aesthetic to reposition a [product] and lying to the audience then that’s not going to work... You can’t get away with lying to the audience.”

He adds: “If you’re using such powerful visual language you have to use it responsibly, because it’s so extreme. You have to think more about what you’re doing. I’m more into suggestion – apart from anything else, it dates better.

"If you use aggressive sexual imagery, its impact fades, and it gets dated. If you look at books from the 1970s they make you laugh – they’re not sexy any more, they just look a bit silly.”

Another important concern is context – both the place material will be published, and the country and culture you’re working in.

Heller points out that the US is “permissive compared to the Middle East”, but less so than, for example, France, where “you can show breasts in the subway.”

He adds: “There are many campaigns that use all kinds of sexual stimulants. But each country has its own morals and mores.”

And while navigating those can be difficult in some media – the Web, for example, is so flooded with porn sites that many clients shy away from anything that might make their Web campaign even vaguely sexed-up – using sex in design is clearly a tactic that’s guaranteed a reaction.

“There are many national ad campaigns that come a hair away from being softcore porn,” cautions Heller. But that’s not necessarily what designers should be aiming for.

Heller advises, “I would not emphasize the sexuality of the campaign. I would simply present my ideas as part of the creative process.” He adds simply, “The most universal approach is to show beauty.” The rest, he says, will follow.

Know the rules

The Advertising Standards Authority monitors ads and investigates those that receive complaints from the public; it has the power to ban ads that it deems too offensive.

When dealing with raunchy ads, the ASA refers to its code of taste and decency: “Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability.

"Compliance with the Code will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards of decency.”

The ASA also judges the way in which ads depict men or women. “Every year we receive hundreds of complaints about the gratuitous use of female images in advertising.

"In broad terms, complaints concern ads in which young women may appear sexually submissive, sexually suggestive or overtly sexual. We consider several factors... including what the ad is for, the place it appeared and even the pose of the women shown,” states the ASA.

A complaint from the public over a risqué ad doesn’t automatically bring down ASA’s wrath, though.

“Sexy images in advertising are not always deemed to be inappropriate; for some products and services we consider they are acceptable or even necessary,” notes the ASA.

“We tend to be more accepting of ads that use sexy or provocative images of women to advertise products aimed at making women feel sexy or better about themselves.”

Context is important to how the ASA evaluates an ad: the agency takes into account whether the material is likely to be seen by children, and whether the audience is likely to be offended by the images.

So an ad that might draw a stern reaction if it appeared in a Sunday supplement could be considered perfectly acceptable in Maxim or Cosmopolitan.

Men in tight underwear

While supine females have long been core material for designers and advertisers, recent years have seen a new trend: the rise of the man as a sex object.

Calvin Klein kick-started the trend in the early 1980s, putting taut, almost naked men on large-scale billboards.

While these were most immediately eye-catching for women, they also had an impact on men, urging them to tone up and, of course, buy the underwear, to stand a better chance of resembling the 30ft hunk gazing moodily down on Times Square.

It’s a simple tactic, but clearly a durable and effective one – in the past year, David Beckham has padded his already ample earnings by appearing, clad only in briefs, in two high-profile campaigns for Emporio Armani Underwear.

The ads aim to be provocative: Emporio Armani created a huge media stir before unveiling its most recent campaign, staging a major event in front of Macy’s in New York, before a crowd of screaming women.

The campaign’s tactic is to draw women’s attention, provoking men into buying the underpants out of jealousy and an indirect desire to emulate Beckham.

And despite research that suggests sex isn’t a particularly effective tactic to use in advertising (see above), the Becks factor clearly works: the Observer reported that Selfridges saw a 30 per cent rise in sales after Beckham’s first campaign, while the newest campaign has also caused sales to rocket.

The trend for sexualising men in design isn’t limited to high-profile stars in briefs, though. In the past decade, the ASA has received increasing numbers of complaints about the depiction of men in advertising.

It says that there has been a trend for “females being shown in a more positive light” since the mid-1990s, but adds that, “for some, it also seemed to herald the start of a trend where males rather than females were shown in unfavourable situations.”

The notion that ads that reverse the gender balance might prove controversial may seem hopelessly sexist, but the ASA says that when it comes to the portrayal of men in ads, these are the most complained-about.

Two ads that typified the trend were the Lee Jeans ‘Put the boot in’ campaign, which advertised boot-cut jeans by having a (female) high heel-wearing, jeans-clad leg poised over a naked man, and the Nissan ‘Ask before you borrow it’ campaign, in which women avenged themselves on men who borrowed their cars uninvited.

“For those who made complaints, the ads showed women in increasingly strong roles while emasculating the male figures,” says the ASA.

“In broad terms the complaints fall into two camps; men being made to be the butt of jokes, or men being shown in a demeaning manner,” the ASA adds.

Does sex really sell?

Sex certainly grabs the attention of viewers and consumers, but the question of whether it’s an effective advertising tactic isn’t as clear-cut as many in adland believe.

Some studies have scientifically tested the theory, with some unexpected results. In a roundup of studies on sex in advertising (and particularly on men in sex-related advertising), Mary Ann Stutts notes that although sexy ads attract more attention than unsexy ads, they don’t boost brand recall or even favourably affect perceptions of the brand.

In some cases, using sex in advertising can prove counter-productive: “Research has shown that the higher the sex content in the ad, the lower the brand-name recall,” says Stutts, adding that brand-name recall was at its lowest when the sexual content wasn’t directly related to the product.

Another study found that women react favourably to scantily-clad men, with the positivity of their reaction increasing in proportion to the level of the man’s nudity – although full male nudity was a turn-off for women and men alike.

Including sexy men in ads has little effect on men’s attitude towards brands, still other studies found, while ads with sexy women worsen women’s views of the brand.

However, women have higher brand recognition for ads with sexy women than those with men.

Sex is a tricky tool to handle effectively, then: while it’s certainly attention-grabbing, it can easily backfire.

Use it wrongly, irrelevantly or to the wrong audience, and you risk diluting your message and potentially damaging the brand.

Memorable campaigns

Club 18-30

Hilarious and clever, or shocking and too close for comfort, Saatchi and Saatchi’s ads for Club 18-30 divided opinion from the start.

Merging Butlins’ innocence with Ibiza hedonism, the scenes led to an instant spike in sales – and created lots of extra media attention.

In the ads groups of ‘young people’ seem to be innocently having fun at a pool, beach and nightclub. Look closer, however, and innuendo can be seen in every action – the table tennis racquet is spanking a bottom, the suncream on the neck could be something else.

An earlier campaign included phrases like, ‘Beaver Espana’ and ‘It’s not all sex, sex, sex: There’s a bit of sun and sea as well’.

Club 18-30 takes around 110,000 guests on holiday each year with an average age 21, and one third away for the first time without their parents.

“If it’s going to be a good laugh then we’re in,” is the firm’s slogan. With this campaign, they were.

Hello boys

Take a good look at the most successful ad of the 1990s, and one of the ten best ads of the 20th Century, according to ad magazine Campaign.

The 1994 advert for Wonderbra sent Wonderbra’s sales through the roof. It also It was called the “poster image of the 1990s” by Campaign’s editor Stefano Hatfield, who pointed out that the design caused little fuss when placed in women’s magazines.

It paved the way for entire companies – Agent Provocateur launched its niche label soon after, building on the success of one seriously good ad.


Two years ago, when the Independent published a list of the world’s best gay ads, the paper noted that the male body has became “unavoidably visible” in pop culture.

While Abercrombie and Fitch, Levi’s and countless other brands have featured sexualized men, Diesel really pushed the boat out with its VJ Day campaign in 1994.

Two pumped-up sailors smooch lustily on the quayside as all around them celebrate victory. Complaints pour in. Sales soar. The fashion house denies shock tactics. It broke the mould, was a risk, and paid off royally.

Lavazza coffee

It’s coffee, for heaven’s sake. Compare it with any other coffee campaign – FairTrade with its earthy coffee growers and Colombian hillsides, for example – and you’ll see how powerful using a sexy design can be.

Lavazza’s ads, created by Italian agency Armando Testa, have become showstoppers, shot by famous photographers and launched with all the panache of a Formula One racing team or a couture house.

Photographed by Scottish photographer Finlay MacKay – the first campaign in 1993 was shot by Helmut Newton – the 16th edition of the calendar features a creation by UK designer Vivienne Westwood, while luxury Italian jewellery designer Damiani supplied diamond jewels to dress the queens. Coffee never looked so good.

The latest David Beckham underpants advertisement for Emporio Armani was unveiled in New York, in June 2008.

David Pearson’s suggestive book covers aim to be more durably sexy than other, more obvious examples, such as this cover from the 1970s (below).

The sleeve design for Art Chantry’s album Cookie blurs gender boundaries and questions sexuality, while the Terry Richardson-photographed campaign for Sisley glamorizes a variety of sexual behaviours.

Illustration Alberto Seveso,