Sex Sells…But Not For Social Causes?

Given all the attention levied at social justice groups like PETA and FEMEN — both of which are notable for their use of female nudity during protests and campaigns — one would think the tactic has merit. After all, these and other groups are obviously trying to garner attention, and raising awareness is central to addressing any number of causes.

However, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon points to some research from Australia that confirms what many critics — even those sympathetic to these causes — have long pointed out: that the use of sex does little to further these campaigns, and if anything harms them:

Two new University of Queensland studies on “Using Sexualized Images of Women” have found that when subjects view sexy PETA ads, “Intentions to support the ethical organization were reduced for those exposed to the sexualized advertising” and “that behaviors helpful to the ethical cause diminished after viewing the sexualized advertisements.” In one of the studies, researchers found that men who viewed the ads were likely to report arousal (shocker), but that they were no likelier to support the cause itself. Renata Bongiorno, the lead researcher on both studies, says, ”There’s a negative link between dehumanization and the treatment of others, it reduces concern.… If you are using images that are dehumanizing, it’s likely to backfire.”

Williams goes on to note that merely gaining attention isn’t enough, and that social justice groups need to lead by example or find other creative ways to raise awareness besides realizing on (mostly) female nudity.

But attention is not support. Headlines don’t end animal cruelty or cure cancer, or, in the case of Miley, increase public sensitivity to say, breastfeeding mothers. “Awareness” is a self-serving, largely meaningless term, a rationalization for petty, demeaning stunts. This new research supports the nagging feeling many of us have held for years – that rather than filling people with warm helpful feelings, the true byproduct of using women’s bodies as window dressing appears to be boners.  Advertising consultant Jane Caro tells the Canberra Times, ”Sex only sells if you are trying to sell sex.” You want to sell ethics? Try using ethical behavior.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts?


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