"Sex Sells" Branding: What's Tasteful And What's Too Far?

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If the “ick” factor of Brooke Shield’s classic 1980s Calvin Klein spot, in which she famously declared “You know what gets in between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” is lost on you, you may not be alone. The standards for what is considered a case of “sex sells” continue to get raunchier, edgier, and just flat progressively jaw-dropping.

Take, for example, the well-known clothing brand American Apparel. On the company’s website, the section for “Basic T-Shirts” is headlined by a woman displaying some failyNSFW body parts through the white cotton (hey, consider yourself warned). And it’s working – American Apparel continues to climb in popularity, especially with young people and 20-somethings.

But when did it become necessary to show the nip-nips in order to sell a basic white cotton t-shirt? And really, why was it necessary for a then-jailbait Shields to peddle Calvins with the insinuation that she’s only commando? What’s tasteful in marketing, and what goes too far? Or perhaps the better question is: Is there such a thing as “too far?”

And some research shows that Freud really was onto something, and that our acquisition of everything from canned chili to iPhones might be motivated by a desire for procreation. But come on – we’re all adults here, right? Perhaps the answer is that sex can sell to adults in a variety of ways, but kids should be off limits.

In the Spring of 2011, a big hullabaloo was heard ‘round the world when MTV began a marketing blitz for its newly adapted version of the U.K. hit “Skins.” The show, later cancelled by the network after one brief season, was not a huge hit among teen viewers, and was even less popular with their shocked and shaken parents. It was reminiscent of the uproar seen just two years prior to the raunchy campaign to promote the CW’s “Gossip Girl” series. With ads showing teenagers (unrealistically portrayed by ragingly hot 22 year olds, of course) engaged in any number of horizontal tango arrangements, with headlines like “OMFG” and “Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare,” it was not surprising that parents cried foul. Moreover, shows like “Skins” don’t necessarily benefit from such tactics. Skins was cancelled in the U.S. after its downright dirty storylines failed to resonate with American teenagers.

So you tell us: What is too far? Or is there a “too far?”

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