Sex in the Stacks

August 1, 2007
National Airlines, 1971, J. Walter Thompson Company Archive
Woodbury's Soap, 1916, J. Walter Thompson Company Archives

Top: National Airlines, 1971, J. Walter Thompson Company Archives, Competitive Advertisements
Woodbury's Soap, 1916, J. Walter Thompson Company Archives, Domestic Advertisements (Andrew Jergens)

"Sex sells" was the message of an exhibit featured throughout the spring in Perkins Library's Rare Book Room. Startling? Hardly. But the exhibit made the case that sex has been a part of American advertising a lot longer than many people think.

Drawn from the collections of the library's Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, the exhibit, "A Century of Sex Appeals," included print ads, as well as speeches, correspondence, and financial reports that document behind-the-scenes decisions to use sex to sell a wide range of products and services. Ads for fast cars, cigars, and condoms stood alongside those for appliances, shaving cream, and soap.

A letter from university namesake Washington Duke to his son warns against using "lascivious photographs" of women to sell cigarettes in 1894, but some in the advertising business disagreed with him. A 1916 Woodbury's Soap ad uses a bare-shouldered woman and the tagline "A Skin You Love to Touch" to attract customers, and a 1940 ad for Halo shampoo encourages consumers to "learn a lesson in sex appeal from this amazing shampoo."

Companies have played off contemporary cultural phenomena to create ads with extra punch and an occasional humorous twist. A 1966 Ford Mustang ad featuring the tagline "Six and the Single Girl" echoes the title of Helen Gurley Brown's popular 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl. A few years later, the publication of Coffee, Tea, or Me?: The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses led to the portrayal of flight attendants as sex objects in advertisements for airlines, shown in the exhibit in an ad from National Airlines' famous "Fly Me" campaign.

The advertising industry self-consciously acknowledges the effectiveness of "slapping a nude" in an advertisement to get attention in a 1970 J.W. Thompson Company ad displayed in the exhibit. The ad features a cartoon of a man in a board room asking, "Can't we get Raquel Welch to endorse your blast furnaces?"