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

ByJoanne Ramos

June 12, 2002 -- 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.

A recent example comes from Victoria's Secret, known for its sultry television ads and its racy live lingerie shows. The firm is now entering the teen market with its Design Your Own Bra line. Targeted at teens who enjoy do-it-yourself fashion and who eschew the staid training-bras of yesteryear, Victoria's Secret's lingerie can be personalized with a panoply of charms, baubles, pins, and other decorative items.

Then there is the recent spate of women-cum-teen magazines. Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan have all launched teen publications. And while the teasers on the covers of teen magazines are tamer than those of their adult counterparts — "Look Hot for Under $20" and "The Best Ways to Flirt" versus "Advanced Pleasure Peaking" — the underlying themes are the same.

The line between what is appropriate for youth versus women's magazines can be blurry. A full-page ad for Bloussant's Breast Enhancement Pills appeared in a recent issue of Teen Vogue touting "increased breast size and firmness" and heightened self-confidence. The magazine's target age: girls aged 12 to 19.

Economy, Family Changes at Root

The acceleration of sexualized marketing into realms once considered taboo is rooted in a number of dynamics, according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Cornell University and author of The Body Project.

"It's a complex interaction of changes within the family, economic factors … and niche marketing," says Brumberg. She cites factors such as a "less authoritarian" family structure due to changes in the typical family unit (single parents, dual-working households) and the growing importance of youth as consumers — both because of children's greater purchasing power and their larger role in family buying decisions.

"I'd say consumer capitalism is the problem," remarks Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. "The way that capitalism works is that you have to keep on increasing your market … and there are only so many adult women. And if growing is the most important thing, which it is in our culture, you need new markets."

Indeed, if companies are in need of new markets, the teen niche is one place to look. According to Teen Research Unlimited, teen spending (defined as spending by those aged 12 to 19) hit $172 billion last year. And the demographic is on the rise. Value Investing Partners reports that since 1992, and for the first time in nearly two decades, the number of American teens has been growing.

And these teens are mad about spending money: The average teen shops 54 times per year and buys 8-12 pairs of jeans. Amazingly, these eye-popping figures exclude spending by Britney Spears-idolizing pre-teens.

Erotica Is Everywhere

Cultural factors, as well as dollars, also come into play. The ubiquity of sexual messages in modern American culture affects both the threshold of acceptability of sexualized marketing, as well as teenagers' receptivity to and demand for these products, experts say.

Erotica has gone "mainstream," argues Jane Buckingham of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based consulting firm focused on teen trends. Young people are subjected to sexual messages even when they are not the explicit targets of such content, agrees Harvard's Greyser. As an example, she pointed to the sexual imagery in television promotions for R-rated movies or sexy billboard ads aimed at adults but viewed by children.

"Being in the media audience has an impact on the minds of younger people," says Greyser, adding, "If it's on the air and in the air," then children will be impacted.

Further influencing society's tolerance for sexualized marketing and products is what Greenwald calls a "convergence of personal role models." Greenwald observes, "Young girls want to look more grown-up, synonymous with looking sexy. And mothers want to look younger and sexy, too."

But a backlash of sorts can be detected, at least in the entertainment sector. A December 2001 Federal Trade Commission report found that progress has been made by the entertainment and music industries in curbing the "inappropriate" marketing to younger audiences of violent and sexually explicit entertainment.

The Bottom Line

Still, these moves appear to have limited impact against a trend so intertwined with the current cultural zeitgeist.

And some experts believe that the importance of this trend has been over-stated. "I don't think companies … are hugely irresponsible," says Buckingham. "They will push the envelope, of course but…for the most part, I think they are responsible."

As far as what the future holds for this trend, it seems that the bottom line may be…well, the bottom line.

"There's always something that is going to cause controversy…teen marketing tries to push the edge," notes Buckingham.

Greenwald agrees. "If it didn't sell, no one would do it."

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