'Gossip Girl' and Others Branding Sex in Ads

Ad agencies and their corporate clients have found ways to pair just about everything -- from skimpy underwear to hamburgers -- with sex. Sex, the saying goes, sells.

But what happens when a marketing campaign crosses the line and toys with the notion of underage sex?

Underage sex -- suggested, simulated or otherwise -- is being used to sell clothes, cars and a hit television shows:

In one ad, a girl wearing only American Apparel underwear can be seen crawling between a man's legs. In the next shot, the model is licking the crotch of the man's underwear, glancing seductively at the camera.

An international ad -- not seen in the United States -- features a Lolita-like girl shot from the shoulders up, her blond hair splayed across the page. The ad copy reads "You know you're not the first." The product: BMW used cars.

For the second season of "Gossip Girl," promos have graduated from salacious sayings like "OMFG" to racier ads that depict members of the cast posed suggestively with negative reviews plastered over them.

Ads like these are addressing sexuality more frankly than ever, and some people have decided to take a stand against the hyper-sexualization of pop culture. But others -- including experts and people who work in the advertising industry -- say it's too late to stop the trend.

"The rub among the adults is 'is this good taste?'" said ad executive John Klein. "Given more of a traditional background one would have to say no. But, then, it doesn't matter anymore."

Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, said advertisers are selling more than a product: They are marketing a complete "lifestyle" to teens and adults.

"Kids are exposed at younger and younger ages to more and more sexually graphic material," Perle said. "When you show an ad that showcases shortcuts to those things, you're not just selling underwear or T-shirts, you're selling whole ways of being."

Media creates norms for audiences of all ages, and when television and magazines depict a warped image of sexuality, inappropriate behaviors follow, Perle said.

"You show an ad of a girl looking like she's just had sex or about to have sex in rumpled sheets wearing a certain type of underwear, that creates a model of what's OK for a kid," Perle said.

Although sex may be the "greatest shortcut to a 60-second ad or a one-impression ad," Perle said advertisers shouldn't be permitted to exploit underage sexuality.

"I'd just say to the creators of these ads, 'Put your 12-year-old girl or boy in front of them and see if you repeat them,'" she said. "That should be the sanity check."

American Apparel Bares All

American Apparel founder Dov Charney is a man of many contradictions -- he's an iconoclast, an attention-grabber and a savvy businessman, Klein said.

Klein should know -- as managing partner of Klein Mickaelian Partners, the businessman worked closely with Charney, the figure behind American Apparel's racy, homegrown ads.

"It's pretty easy to get attention, but it's not that easy to get some relevance. It really takes some poetry," Klein said. "He's very political. The exposure has been remarkable -- and he's kind of sexually oriented."

Klein's firm originally developed a campaign for American Apparel that portrayed the company as an alternative to bigger corporations that produced their clothes in sweatshops around the world.

Now, though, American Apparel's ads are more sexually suggestive than political.

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