A World Without Sex: Adverts without the Perverts

In this month’s column, we apply our thought experiment to the world of consumerism, marketing, and advertising and consider how an absence of sex might affect the gender-biased nuances of the retail.

Speculative fiction stories set in new worlds are more likely to feature magicians battling aliens aboard a time machine than an advertising executive designing a campaign for a client’s latest product. And honestly, when an author is tasked with creating an entire political or magic system, the aspect of merchandising and retail are not high-priority concerns.

Certain genres like science fiction, however, lend themselves to the nitty-gritty details of consumerism, especially in film where they make for engrossing visuals. Think Robocop, Minority Report, Total Recall, and Blade Runner. (Worth noting: the last three are based on stories written by Phillip K. Dick, a master at gritty science fiction written with a distinct cis-het male perspective.) The recent Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, raised eyebrows for its striking use of “futuristic advertising,” which comes in the form of towering sexualized holographic women.

If the goal is to craft a dystopian future, then a commercial industry influenced by patriarchal norms and expectations (that men are worthy of or owed a beautiful woman’s attention by mere virtue of being a man who craves that attention) will certainly obtain that goal. Dystopian is often synonymous with degradation of women, or at most, entire classes of citizens as a whole. Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to find a dystopic narrative in which men alone are the subject of degradation. But I digress.

We don’t need to travel to some bleak future to find ads that objectify women to catch the male eye and appeal to masculine desire. For example, my husband’s Twitter feed (he predominantly follows sports and comedian accounts) is inundated with ads for—well, I can’t actually tell you what they are for, just that they tend to put “hot, young” women in provocative poses front and center. It doesn’t matter if what’s being promoted even relates to women. It only matters that it catches a male consumer’s eyeballs. For all I know, they are promoting toilet paper.

Even ads targeting female consumers can be sexualized. Commercials for clothing, makeup, skincare, and haircare can rely on subtler sexualized depictions to hawk their goods. The message might be, “Buy this product if you want to be as attractive as me.” That’s fine if the point is for the woman to feel attractive for her own gratification. Not so much if the commercial then pivots to a man caressing her “now smooth and touchable skin and hair.”

Sex-based influences leach into product design and marketing, as well. Consider the shrink-it and pink-it school of marketing. Shrink and pink embraces the idea that certain concepts—florals, herbs, pastel colors and daintiness—are exclusively feminine. You’d be hard pressed to find a product designed for men that says “now infused with lavender and rose hips.” Men expect diesel, steel, gears, and exxxxxxtreme power. Women’s products tend to be packaged in pastels, while men’s products come in black, red, gray, dark blue, and nitro green.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. Thanks to a heightened awareness of how we cultivate gendered personae for concepts that aren’t inherently gendered, marketers are drifting away from the shrink and pink tactic. General use products geared toward women are now often designed with actual differences and needs in mind rather than simply being sized down and color-coded. As discussed in the Wired article linked above, a hiking boot isn’t “for women” because it’s smaller and pink. Rather, it’s a woman’s hiking boot because it is specifically designed to accommodate the different characteristics of the female foot. And maybe it happens to come in pink as well as the standard colors.

Advertising agencies are also beginning to leverage female empowerment in their advertising campaigns. They’ve realized that showing women who run, sweat, and enjoy beer is as appealing to female consumers as showing them tossing about shiny hair. Real progress, however, comes in the form of cleaning product commercials that depict a man scrubbing away in the bathroom.

In the context of our thought experiment, if we envision a collective human history free of sex, marketing would not rely on sexuality and intimacy to draw eyeballs and open wallets. Online gaming sites and fast food companies (linked video NSFW) wouldn’t use seductive poses and overly made-up “come hither” looks to attract consumers. After all, non-gendered products don’t need to sexualize (or be sexist in) their commercials to sell their goods: animated bears work just fine for toilet paper.

So, what might take its place? Removing the sexually-informed gendered element means products would be marketed by need and general preference. Deodorant aisles would not be divided into “powerful red his” and “dainty powder blue hers” sections. Perhaps they’d look more like the toothpaste aisle, with products separated by brand, special needs, or expected results.

Advertising teams might instead concentrate on what actually makes a product valuable to its consumers. Men’s jeans? “You can wear them up to four days in a row!” Women’s shampoo? “Now go even longer between washes!” (Those may or may not be specific to my household . . .) There are plenty of other advertising angles in use today with a non-sexual focus: wealth attainment and classism (think of those irritating Matthew McConaughey car commercials), novelty, need, and of course, good old humor.

When an author designs a new worldscape for their novel, including mundane details such as merchandising, commercials, and retail may not be priority, but they can add a nuanced tone to the work. Writers who wish to depict worlds with egalitarian or matriarchal societies should then consider how branding and advertising might function in a world free of the masculine/feminine marketing that our present reality has normalized.

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