Sex Doesn’t Actually Sell, At Least Not on Magazine Covers

Both women and men are sexually objectified on the covers of legacy magazines, including GQ, Esquire, Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone, as well as Men’s Health on occasion.

“Men’s Health is ‘known’ to be health related and the images are therefore interpreted somewhat differently than those in GQ,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, who researches the intersection of technology and human behavior at California-based Media Psychology Research Center.

Mary Nell Trautner and Erin Hatton, assistant professors of sociology at SUNY Buffalo, conducted an analysis of Rolling Stone magazine covers for the September 2011 issue of Sexuality & Culture to see if men and women were ebing equally sexualized on magazine covers. Trautner and Hatton reviewed every cover from the first issue of Rolling Stone in November 1967, through to 2009. “We didn’t initially set out to study sexualization,” says Hatton. “But Trautner had all of the Rolling Stone covers and through the organic process of going through them and studying them that’s the pattern that emerged,” they explain.

The study showed that only two percent of the images of men across the entire dataset—all 43 years—were hypersexualized. In contrast, by the 2000s, 61 percent of women were hypersexualized and another 22 percent were sexualized. That means that 83 percent of women were either sexualized or hypersexualized during that decade. The professors point to how the results show a decisive narrowing or homogenization of media representations of women.

Journalist Ariel Levy describes the trend this way in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture: “A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular.  What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression,” she writes, “we now view as sexuality.”

Tahmina Begum, co editor-in-chief of London-based online feminist magazine XXY Magazine, says the trend has been particularly noticeable in consumer magazines that . “Even when it’s Vanity Fair and an image shot by Annie Leibovitz, women are naked and men are wearing a suit,” she says. “We need to see more diversity, not only by shaking up male and female stereotypes but with transsexuals and dark people on the cover.”

Hatton found the part of the study where the researchers looked at fully naked, seated pictures of one man and one woman the most interesting. In those images it was always the case of the man being sexualized while the woman was hypersexualised. “It’s a common understanding that everyone is sexualised [in the media] today, but really, images of women are more like softcore porn. It’s not the ‘equal opportunity’ sexualization we believe it to be.”

According to Rutledge, there is no easy answer as to why these differences exist. One argument is that “sex sells.”

“From an evolutionary perspective, this would be true. Our primitive brains are hardwired to notice basic needs (sex is one), particularly at younger ages. Research also shows that there is a differential from an evolutionary perspective in what appeals to men and women—for example, men are attracted to young, ‘fertile’ women whereas women are attracted to power and wealth. In spite of the political incorrectness, these behaviors are related to instinctive mating behaviors that haven’t evolved much in millions of years. That doesn’t mean they should be blindly promoted. These are unconscious instincts that can be redirected consciously,” says Rutledge.

Can we learn anything useful from the study? It doesn’t seem to be as simple as “sex sells.” If that were the case, as the authors indeed highlight, we’d see many more images of women on the cover (only 30 percent of the Rolling Stone covers featured images of women). And we would also see more sexualized images of men.

And, interestingly, the decades-old advertising saying that sex sells may not be true after all.

According to a recent study published by the academic journal Psychological Bulletin, ads that feature sex and violence are less effective than those with neutral themes. The reason for this lies precisely in its distraction purposes. “We’re hardwired to pay attention to violence and sex,” says Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University and co-author of the study. “If our ancestors hadn’t paid attention to sexual cues, they’d never have sex and produce offspring. It’s the same instinctual principle as staying away from spiders and snakes,” he says.

According to Bushman, people’s attention is limited, and the sex and violence in television programs and ads use up our attention span. He believes the same is true for magazine covers, as covers can be viewed as “ads” for the magazine itself.

This emerging wisdom is reflected in recent consumer magazine developments. Last year, the UK’s biggest tech and gadget magazine, Stuff Magazine, decided to stop portraying semi-naked women on its cover. They had received a lot of complaints from consumers for several years who either felt uncomfortable reading the publication with those types of covers or felt that it didn’t have much to do with the content. And today, 40 percent of its readership is female. Following the move, Stuff’s sales went up by 6-10 percent, echoing the Ohio State study. According to Stuff’s editor-in-chief Will Findlater, the decision to ditch sexualized covers reflects the fact that we are now in a “post-lads mag era.”

Another example of where hypersexualization has led to a backlash through declining product sales is in the story of the rise and fall of American clothing brand Abercrombie and Fitch.

There was a slight gender difference in the results of the Ohio State University advertising study, which was evaluated on three criteria: how much consumers remember the product, their attitude to the brand and their intention to buy. Men were less likely to remember ads that feature sex and violence, which suggests that the male brain is more hardwired to notice sex and violence.  

Some people have pointed out that as we slowly approach equality in other areas of life, such as the economic, political and social arenas, sexuality is one of the platforms that still belong to men. And precisely because of the advances in other areas, sexuality has become more important in asserting male dominance. In the case of the Rolling Stone study, it is the successful and powerful women who are brought under a sexually objectifying gaze to make sure that sexuality stays within the realm of male dominance.

Hatton offers a perspective to this theory. “I think the cultural backlash against feminism since the 1980s has played a role in this development, as well as the rise of third wave feminism. For example, today breast implants are seen as feminist; it’s about choice. So there’s both a cultural and a financial component that go into the shift,” she says.

From the studies above, there seems to be two active strands: one that increasingly sexualizes women and one that decides to get rid of sexualization altogether. Media psychologist Rutledge points to how there’s been both an increase and decrease in the sexualization of women in the media, and that it’s difficult to separate cultural and social changes from the presentation of images. “For example, it used to be very risque to show a woman’s ankle and now we have Miley Cyrus promoting her act across multiple media channels and, while she gets some reaction as to the aggressive sexuality of her images, she is accomplishing quite a bit from a PR perspective,” explains Rutledge.

Hatton also acknowledges that there are a lot of complicated dynamics that come into play regarding the two opposing trends. “Part of the story is the expression of femininity and feminine power. It’s not necessarily a bad one, but it’s not great when it’s the only one. And it seems like it’s the only portrayal of women that media can fathom today and that’s a problem,” she says.

“Celebrities may or may not feel empowered by being portrayed in this way. It can be empowering for a variety of reasons. But again, when it’s the only way of achieving power, it’s problematic. Celebrities that have gotten to that level of fame, in getting there, have to already conform to certain rules within their industry.”

Trautner and Hatton haven’t conducted any further studies on the same topic since, but Hatton says she suspects the “increased sexualization” trend hasn’t diverged much in recent years. “Part of it has to do with commercialization. There’s a narrow belief of what the audience wants to see.”

Magazine editor Begum has a theory about why that’s the case, saying, “Advertisers and editors that control the content are usually much older than their target audience and a lot of the time they don’t know what that audience really wants to see. So they might think these sexist covers are what that younger demographic wants.”

Rutledge has won several awards for promoting innovation while working in magazine design. What innovative steps did she find important to implement? “It’s important to recognize that media is a system, not a one-way street. Magazines, like any other commercial media, exists only as long as it has customers. Ratings, whether it’s measured instantly like in TV or through the newsstand and subscriptions, influence content. Every commercial concern has to be cognizant of customer needs and wants. Within that context, it’s important to evaluate imagery and the juxtapositioning of image and text for social meaning, not just visual impact, and take responsibility for the messages you are sending. Responsibility is the innovation,” she says.

Begum talks about how society as a whole is much more sexualized now, and that magazines are just a reflection of what we are today. “In YouTube videos for example, you’d see twerking all the time, and we don’t even notice it anymore, it’s normal. It’s just reflecting what’s going on. It’s a reflection of everything, we are so immune to people wearing short shorts and bra tops, that’s also just normal in today’s world. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s desensitized us.”

In order to keep up with what the world looks like today, Begum would like to see a mix of naked women, hijab-wearing women and transgender people on the same cover. “We live in a world with so many images. All these covers on racks, we don’t realize how we take it all in subconsciously. It’s about something more than ‘sex sells,’ it’s about achieving change in the culture,” she says.

Today, as print magazine sales are declining, we don’t need to be as dependent on polished images anymore. The question is, can social media achieve more equality between the sexes and prove to be more self-empowering for women than traditional magazines have the ability to be?

“They both matter,” says Rutledge. “There is social validation that comes from traditional media sources. Stories about successful women in traditional platforms sends a message. At the same time, the ability of voices to rise up across social media is incredibly powerful. What will make change is influencing how people think, not what magazines print.”