Sex Still Sells – Sells What, Exactly?


Sexism sure makes for strange bedfellows. Early this morning, one of my editors sent me a link to the new Renewable Girls calendar, along with a link to commentary posted on Ms. Magazine’s blog. The “environmental” 2011 calendar uses sexually provocative images of female models – complete with throwback Mad Men copy and props like aprons and bananas – to promote solar panels. The various posts from the blogosphere thus far are mocking, outraged, and most notably, confused. Is this a case of sex sells? Or a case of ironic sex sells? Or a case of justified sex sells? Or how about a case of tongue-in-cheek sex sells? Like, sexism is so empowering when it’s green!


It’s not inflatable. It’s renewable.

Let’s not greenwash it: sex. always. sells. Confusion is a gleaming hall pass for these marketers.

It’s hard for us gals to keep doing what we think is important when our supposed allies hate us (and themselves – I’m talking to you, Newkirk). Is it exaggeration to use the word “hate”? I don’t believe so. Just because it comes wrapped in some shiny Shinola about progress doesn’t make it acceptable. A rose by any other name, as it were.

Speaking of misogyny in marketing, here’s the latest advertising campaign from Bebe, that polyester brand of sexualized striving and low self-esteem, as featured in September’s InStyle magazine. (InStyle is among the most popular American women’s magazines.)


Hours after spotting this image, I was still upset, so I hunted down the email of the head honcho of marketing for Bebe, Sandra Alvarenga, and fired off a letter. If you look at Alvarenga’s LinkedIn profile, it appears she’s never worked for any company but Bebe, starting as a shop clerk and working her way up through production, then executive assistance, then advertising, and finally to the top of the heap of corporate marketing. If you’ve wondered what’s been up with the Bebe business over the last decade or two, now you know.

She never responded, of course. The gist of my “barnyard Lolita” letter I’ll include here:

I feel compelled to express that I believe your company has crossed a line with the image of an extremely under-age looking girl with gooped-up, wide red lips, her eyes hollow, her expression resigned, her tiny body spread-eagled and strategically covered, in a barn of all things. She is an object, nothing more, and the staging and design of the shoot clearly mean to convey this. Working in new media I see my fair share of crass content, yet I cannot shake the sick feeling this ad gives me. I’m embarrassed for bebe and whatever equally cynical agency helped you with this campaign. And, as a woman, I’m saddened to discover the person behind this is a woman herself.

Experiment: If I rip out a PETA page, toss in the Bebe ad, take a screencap from Renewable Girls, and scan ’em all together, I am willing to bet that a good male friend who’s a media executive, much less my twentysomething brother, won’t be able to spot the difference. Only, this is kind of an unfair experiment because I’ve already conducted it, and you can guess what happens.

Hey, sex sells. And I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing – it’s a pretty natural thing. I’m not one to complain about a shirtless James Franco for Gucci cologne ad. But sex in the context of contempt is degrading to everyone. (Renewable Girls, you see, “tend to go for the bling. Be it on their finger or on their roof. So if you’re going to please her with panels, you have to make sure the price is right.”) Success at any cost sure feels a lot like something else that’s not so polite to talk about. At what price green?

This is the problem with a culture that continues to worship at the philosophical altar of The Ends Justify the Means. You cannot beat hatred with hatred. You cannot end abuse with abuse. You cannot wage war on violence with more violence. And you cannot create a culture of sustainability – what we alternately call, depending on the decade, peace, love, or prosperity –  by flashing about as the other side of the same damn coin.

PETA’s notorious campaigns featuring nudity in the crusade for animal rights have been covered and criticized ad infinitum. The organization is the Sarah Palin of activism: savvy, desperate, focused, insane. The problem with PETA’s campaigns isn’t that sexy pictures of women are automatically offensive. (Hey, saying that would just be sexism of another kind.) The problem is that this strategy so enthusiastically seeks defeat. Objectifying creatures – in this case, women – for some purported noble end isn’t ironic and clever. It isn’t even cynical and clever. It’s exactly the same thing as the problem itself. If it looks derivative, or self-loathing, or sad, that’s because it is.

Welcome to the era of ecosexism.