Sex Sells, But Question Is ... to Whom?

Sexy thong underwear. Brassieres festooned with rhinestones. Breast enhancement pills. Products targeted at young, body-conscious women? Try teenage — and even pre-teen — girls.

Like it or not, modern American culture is permeated with sex: from the steamy billboards foresting Times Square to the proliferation of "porn studies" on college campuses; from pop song lyrics to R-rated movies to the wild popularity of Internet porn sites.

That sex sells is nothing new. What is new, claim some academics and family advocacy groups, is the sexual targeting of an ever-younger audience by corporate America.

Teens and, increasingly, pre-teens are bombarded not just with sexualized marketing, but with what many experts construe to be sexualized products — items that just a decade ago would have been considered "for adults only."

Eye Candy or Pornography?

A case in point is the recent brouhaha over Abercrombie & Fitch's peddling of sexually suggestive thong underwear to young girls.

The rear-less underwear, decorated with pictures of cherries and catchphrases like "kiss me," "wink wink" and "eye candy," sparked an outcry from conservative groups when it hit store shelves earlier this year.

Bill Johnson, president of the Michigan-based, family advocacy group American Decency Association, which is boycotting the retailer, calls the underwear "pornographic" and says they would fit a child as young as seven. He adds: "There is an ongoing trend to sexualize youth. … There are clearly a core of marketers who will go as low as they are permitted to go."

Abercrombie disagrees, saying in a written statement that the underwear was meant to be "lighthearted and cute." The firm maintains the product is aimed at girls aged 10 or over, even though the Abercrombie Kids line, under which the thongs are marketed, is aimed at girls aged 7-14.

Me and My Calvins

To be sure, sex in teen-targeted marketing has sparked controversy for years.

Remember the outcry in the 1980s over then-15-year-old Brooke Shield's saucy claim that "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins?" Or the uproar triggered by Calvin Klein's 1995 so-called "teen porn" ad campaign, which elicited a Justice Department investigation into whether or not Klein had violated child pornography laws?

Yet a number of experts on both sides of the cultural wars feel that something new is afoot.

However sexualized Calvin Klein's marketing campaigns have been in the past, the products touted were age neutral. But now thongs or racy bras that were once unequivocally for adults only are being peddled to pre-teenage girls.

"The phenomenon is real," remarks Stephen Greyser, professor at the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., who specializes in consumer marketing and advertising. "There is a broader acceptance today of a looser standard than what was acceptable 10 or 15 years ago."

Gradual Creep

The broadening of what is acceptable in terms of sexual marketing, described by Columbia Business School Professor Michelle Greenwald as "gradual creep," can be discerned in the traditionally "mature" products that are today peddled to an immature audience.

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