Does sex in advertising work—or go horribly wrong?

It’s been a very hard summer for some advertisers—and many would say for good reason.

The latest episode was this week, in a Mt. Vesuvius-type eruption of commentary about social media posts from a high-end baby stroller company called Bugaboo. Here’s the company’s Instagram photo and the epicenter of the scuttlebutt:

Bugbaboo Instagram

The shot features one of the company’s more modest strollers—a mere $800—being pushed by bikini-clad Prada model and “yummy mummy” Ymre Stiekema. Along for the ride in the pricey three-wheeled wonder is Ymre’s two-year-old child.

It didn’t take long for the outrage to unleash, understandably. Moms commented in droves about having no time to exercise, struggling with postpartum weight, exhaustion, and the like—and Bugaboo being completely out of touch.

Then, of course, there was the backlash to the backlash. People said Ymre looked amazing, and those naysayers were simply “jealous.” A philosophical avalanche ensued, with some debating what it even means to be a mother.

Bugaboo wisely stayed out of social media street fight, but it did release a statement, saying that it designed its stroller “with active parents in mind” and it wanted to “inspire moms and dads everywhere to explore the world with their families, while keeping up with an active and healthy lifestyle.” As for the bikini, Bugaboo said that parents should “run free … on their fitness journeys and what they choose to wear on their runs.”

This summer, Bugaboo wasn’t the first brand to ignite massive wrath with a teeny bikini. Protein World launched this campaign in subways and transit stations in the United States and England in the beginning of the beach season. Needless to say, it was a train wreck:

Facebook Beach Body


The reaction, both here and across the pond, was quick and severe. In addition to social media pouncing on the company, a woman named Natalie Considine took enough offence to it that she started a petition against the campaign. The petition stated: “According to Protein World, if I don’t look like the woman in the ad, I shouldn’t even bother to hit the beach this summer.” It got tens of thousands of signers here and in England. (The London transit system ended up removing the ads over the outcry.)

England was the scene of another advertising sex scandal a few months ago. This involved a campaign where a bus company was promoting a ride all day pass for one price. This effort was equal in its exploitation, featuring both shirtless women and men on the sides of the buses, holding signs with cheeky little headlines:

Ride me all day


The backfire was incredible. Twitter exploded, angelic child singing sensation Charlotte Church got involved, and it all went downhill in a matter of days. The bus company apologized abundantly and removed all the signs within 24 hours. The company said it was trying to attract younger riders with the campaign. (They may have been onto something… more on that in a minute.)

The more jaded among us would say that all of these companies won on a certain level. They achieved what most advertising aims to do: Get attention. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, negative publicity is better than no publicity at all.

Others would say that all of this will be forgotten by next week, in the perpetual wave pool of memes, scandals and stories that is the internet. Whatever.

It still begs the question: Does sex in advertising work? In consumer marketing, you see it surface again and again in perfume and beer commercials, and in lingerie, travel, and even food ads.

A recent article in Time claims that sex in advertising actually does harm to sales, according to research. We are genetically wired to notice sex and violence, scientists claim, but they distract from a product’s message. Women, men, and various ages also respond differently to sex in ads. A study found that women tend to remember products from more provocative ads. Men were so distracted by the sex, they totally forgot the product. Older people were turned off by it, younger people tended to respond more. (I wonder what that bus company in England would say about that.)

All of this brings up an intriguing clash of forces. People want to look good and will look to products and services to help them achieve that. It’s also hard to imagine certain industries not selling on appearance and sex (such as fitness, fashion and beauty—although Dove’s® Campaign for Real Beauty was revolutionary). And then, with social media, every consumer basically has a megaphone to voice an opinion about a poster that may upset him or her on a subway. And the research says sex in advertising doesn’t really ring anyone’s cash register anyway.

In a few years, will a high-end stroller company post a photo of a mom pushing a stroller in a park—wearing a t-shirt and capris that reveal she’s in moderately good shape? Would people notice?

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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