Using Sex to Sell Vegetarianism

Sex sells. Duh. And uses of sex(uality) to sell things range from the cutesy to the crude, from the obvious to the outrageous. Most reasonable people, I think, take a certain amount of it for granted, though we may wince or just roll our eyes at the more blatant and/or childish efforts (I’m looking at you, Axe Body Spray!) But at very least, using overt representations of sexuality to sell your product opens up a lot of questions, ethically speaking. For some, the use of sex seems like a distraction, an irrelevancy. “Why are there scantily-clad women in this ad? It’s an ad for office supplies!” The sexual element of such ads tell us nothing, and so such ads might be criticized for failing at achieving the purported goal of advertising, namely to inform consumers. For others, the use of sex can be more sinister, a cynical attempt to manipulate us by means that stereotype, reduce, and trivialize.

So, here’s something to chew on: what are we to think when a company (or other organization) uses sex to sell something that is generally presented as an ethical product or lifestyle choice? In particular, what to think about using sex to sell vegetarian products and an animal-friendly lifestyle? Here are two recent stories on this question:

Both stories focus on the same 2 cases. The first is a vegan strip-club in Portland. According to Maclean’s it is…

…a devil-themed venue called Casa Diablo Gentlemen’s Club — the world’s first vegan strip club — where, as [the owner] told local media, “We put the meat on the pole, not on the plate.”

What, you wonder, is a “vegan” strip club? Well, all the food (in a traditionally meat-oriented style of establishment) is vegan (i.e., zero animal products), and all the strippers are vegans. In addition, all the strippers wear cruelty-free outfits. (Well, at least the outfits aren’t cruel to animals. I can only speculate whether the outfits are cruel to the strippers.)

The other case featured in both stories is the use of naked female bodies by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to raise awareness of its cause. In recent years, PETA has used the nude or semi-nude bodies of both unknown women and famous women (e.g., Pamela Anderson, Cindy Crawford, Alicia Silverstone) in its ads and publicity stunts. In defending such tactics, PETA sometimes appeals to the free choice made by the women in their ads, but for the most part they stick to a consequentialist focus on the anticipated good outcomes. The NYT quotes thusly:

“Sexuality is what society will turn its head for more than anything else,” said Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, who added that the recent advertisements were just one of the group’s strategies. “We try to reach everybody in different ways.” She noted that the group has also shown naked men in ads.

Of course, sex itself isn’t a bad thing, so featuring sex(uality) in advertising can’t be intrinsically a bad thing. The problem is that, historically, using “sex” to sell has typically meant using women’s bodies, and usually specific cultural stereotypes of ideal women’s bodies, to sell things. And some people, at least, see a special irony in using women’s bodies to sell vegetarianism: the tactic, critics say, fights oppression of animals by colluding with the oppression of women. I wonder: would PETA be just as ready to use, say, race the same way they use sex? Food for thought.

Unnecessary footnote: FYI, the connection between sex & vegetarianism might not be spurious; it might make more sense to use sex to sell vegetarianism than to sell office supplies. Pro-vegetarian literature has long touted the, er, sexual benefits of a vegetarian diet. (Fewer clogged arteries, better blood flow…you figure it out.) This particular vegetarian blogger is not about to do anything to deflate those claims.

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