Over the years, brands have increasingly incorporated features and representations of a sexual nature in their advertising and positioning. "Sex sells," as every copywriter knows, as does eroticism and desire (especially for clothing and accessories). When consumers perceive something as sexy, its appeal is heightened. Television, film and music videos have all embraced this trend in their narratives. Indisputably, the use of sex in the media has intensified over time.
Some analysts talk about hypersexualization, accusing the media of being responsible for the early, even premature, development of children's sexuality. This ethical, post-sexual-liberation point of view is shared by a large proportion of the population today.
Since the 1990s, we have been using a rather incisive question which, according to our hypotheses at the time, was intended to monitor the inevitable decline in traditional sexual morality. To that end, we have been asking people if they agree (or disagree) with the following statement: "It horrifies me to see so many articles and pictures about sex in films, magazines and books." From the outset, we expected this question to reveal a growing majority of people who disagree with the statement. (We are well aware that our question from the 1990s does not mention all the media available today, but we believe that we can interpret the results in a more general way, by encompassing the current media environment.)
To our great surprise, however, the anticipated decline did not come to pass until quite recently. Even so, one in two Canadians (50%) still agree with this harsh statement ("horrified" is an exceedingly strong sentiment), which we consider a high threshold. Even in Québec, often the country's most permissive province, where 46% agree with the statement compared to 51% in the rest of the country, the variance isn't all that great. The Maritimes are the most conservative in this respect, with 58% agreement, while the other provinces and regions reflect the national average.
Age is a decisive factor in this phenomenon, and where we find the most divergence. Whereas 50% of the population as a whole agree with the above statement, this agreement falls to 43% among 18-24 year olds and rises to 62% among seniors 65 years of age and up. While there's nothing astonishing about such support among the older generations (65+), we consider two in five (43%) young people (18-24) agreeing with such an uncompromising statement to be a very high level!
Interestingly, the decline we expected our questions to measure seems to have occurred only from 2006 to 2012. In fact, the statement garnered between 55% and 59% agreement from 1996 to 2006 (a solid majority of the population), whereas from 2006 until 2012, the proportion of Canadians in agreement with the statement declined from 59% to 48%-an 11-point drop in 6 years! Since then, it has fluctuated around 50% of the population.
Consequently, as sex in the media becomes more commonplace, more ordinary, it appears that we are becoming less exercised about it.
However, since 2012, we seem to have established a floor below which we do not want to fall. The population remains equally divided regarding their acceptance (or not) of sexual content in the media and advertising. Permissiveness and prudishness coexist in the country in equal measure. But what is most surprising is that, at 40%, prudishness (being horrified by a lot of sex in the media) among young people is not a negligible threshold.
Our original hypotheses led us to expect that the decline in society's more traditional, conservative and religious values would result in mores of greater sexual permissiveness. And that we would see this displayed in the media and in brand advertising. That is precisely what happened. Society, both in Quebec and English Canada, is definitely less prudish than ever before, but the stubborn floor below which people refuse to go indicates that there are other factors at work.
Indeed, our analysis of the values and hot buttons associated with attitudes to sex in the media indicates that this prudishness is being inspired by more than religious conservatism. There is a kind of postmodern ethic, associated with a sense of "the other" and with social responsibility, that rejects hypersexualization-a social, ethical and even ecological awareness that respects life and other people, and that rejects the abusive reduction of people to sexual objects.
This postmodern ethic has gradually been layered onto traditional religious morality, resulting in prudishness regarding the display of sexuality in the public domain. This explains the floor of 50%, below which we have not fallen for several years, according to the results of our question on attitudes toward sex in the media.
The temptation is great for brands and content creators to use sex to attract consumers and audiences. The recipe is a simple one-and it works! But it does have its limitations and could easily become counterproductive, if the trend continues. If sex is overused, brands could see their "sympathy" equity eroded; the media could find their audiences dwindling.
Given the strength of the new post-modern ethic behind this prudishness, content creators will need to use good judgment to avoid objectifying people's bodies. There will always be a place for sensuality, but we would be wise to always "leave something to the imagination!"