Using Sex to Sell Social

Fast Company Sexy SOcial Media Cover from September Issue

Perhaps you have seen the September issue of Fast Company.

The cover headline refers to sex and social media with Mindy Kaling’s demure yet suggestive picture. Yet Mindy’s story doesn’t focus on anything about sex.

Instead it discusses how the Office screenwriter built a substantial personal brand on Twitter, and garnered a TV sitcom. It’s even got some cool stats on TV social network sharing.

The cover baits men and women who may be interested in Kaling’s sex appeal and how social media embellishes it.


The use of sexual imagery to promote products, media and ideas goes back to when the first Mad Men walked the streets of New York. Traditionally female models are used, but today you are as likely to see male imagery.

With the rise of women’s rights, the use of female models as sex objects has increasingly come under fire as unhealthy on several levels. Such objectification has even been countered with “anti-marketing” efforts like Dove’s well praised Real Beauty campaign.

Adding to the negative impact that marketing sex can create, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the brand! In fact, the more graphic the image, the less likely consumers are to remember the product or service sold to them.

Really the Fast Company incident is a rated PG matter compared to some of the stunts WIRED has pulled. The latter geek rag is notorious for objectifiying women in its pursuit of magazine sales.

But still, there are several presumptions with Fast Company’s cover I can see:

  • Performance doesn’t matter in social media.
  • Rather, women in social media need to be sexy.
  • It also implies women interested in successful social media career need to be young, too. Agism has been a recent topic here, but this can cut both ways.

I don’t see anything wrong with sexiness, but how does it apply to the tactical use or profession of social media?

In the end, the Fast Company cover gently reinforces some negative stereotypes. Most will dismiss it as harmless or as “sex sells.”

While I’ve blogged about women’s rights in the past, I’m sure women have their own take on the Fast Company cover (as well as WIRED’s use of media).

As a Dad of a little girl, I definitely pay attention to this issue now. What the media tells women to look and act like, versus how they actually are certainly provides a lot of food for thought.

I know Soleil will grow up to become a beautiful woman (regardless of height, weight, petite, etc.). More importantly I hope her self esteem is grounded in her actions, capabilities and other strengths, and not magazine cover imagery.

What do you think?


  • Totally on point, Geoff.

    Given the direction we’re seeing in publishing, I don’t know that covers will be an issue when Soleil (or even my daughter) hits adulthood. Digital editions of magazines will have multiple covers, algorithmically selected to your own individual tastes. And mine. And others.

    Which means that for some, Road and Track will still feature boobs, but it won’t be creating impressions on a public newsstand.

  • I agree. If you cannot remember that product or brand, what is the point? Did you see the story where a young girl rallied support to persuade “Seventeen” magazine to feature un-airbrushed photos? That is what gives me hope.

    • What a great story, thank you for sharing this, Susan. I agree, it shows the marketer has a lack of talent, or the product is unmemorable in its own right.

  • This stuff bugs me but capitalism follows the money. Aren’t men responsible for allowing this? I mean the fact hooters exists or that girls gone wild was so big we have a perversion inn marketing. Men are suckers for pretty women and women make money off this and allow businesses to make even more money.

    But your point is very valid about results. And I wonder in the future when women rule things will this be reversed? You should google women are hornier than men to see the future (it is a spoof and hilarious but….maybe one day?)

    • I think we are seeing more ads with men as sex objects (hello, Old Spice). It works because we’re not used to it, but I think in the end it will end up having the same result.

  • Sex sells, but it shouldn’t. End of story. This is where consumers need to make their voices heard. In the same way that outsourcing and child labor and sweat shops make products more affordable, but shouldn’t.

    This is why I hate pragmatism. Sure it works, but so do a lot of things. The first questions shouldn’t be, “Does it work?”. The first should be, “Is it right?”.

    I come from much the same perspective, though further down the road. My daughter is a wonderful young woman who turns 23 in a month. She is beautiful by any standard, but has never felt compelled to buy into the media lies. Perhaps some of that comes from growing up in a home with a father whose job has been to analyze media messages since before she was born. I know that my wife and I have worked hard to make sure she never felt that pressure. On the same hand, we’ve worked hard to make sure our two sons never treat girls as objects in any way. So far, so good. I couldn’t be prouder of them.

    • Yeah, it’s bad stuff. It’s great that you worked with your sons on this, too.

      My mom, both of my grandmothers, and my great aunt were all successful entrepreneurs and businesswomen. None of them acted like ditzy bimbos and two of them were very good looking women who received a lot of attention, but they didn’t bullshit with the appeal. They were all about business, and they taught me to treat women at work with respect.

      As to it working as a marketing technique, yes and no. It sells, but it fails to impact the brand that affiliates with the sex object. Studies show this to be true:

      Point being, if you appeal to carnal instincts then the mind fails to come with… at least in the way that brands want them to act.

  • I was put off by the cover, really put off. I feel that we should be well past the time when sex pushes sales but then again, we live in a society that places values on superficial. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a little skin (heck, look at my latest avatar). But when it leads, you have to start wondering where (and when) we went wrong. I would venture to guess it was well before Mad Men walked Madison Avenue.

    • When it leads, you distract people from the real purpose of the conversation. It’s great to feel sexy, but at what cost? Maybe you get to a $5 million mark. With the “red herring” toned done and the real focus at hand, you will likely go further. To me it’s a question of skill. I think it’s a tactic that reveals a bad product or a marketer who can’t elevate his/her game.

  • Funnily I met someone in May and she told me that putting a rather suggestive picture of not even herself on social media helped her gain followers.

    Then again in July someone told me, if you got it flaunt it and mind you this person is someone pretty successful.

    In all honesty, despite being mind numbing and dumb, sex does sell but not necessarily to your target audience.

    Growing up, I never succumbed to purchasing magazines such as Seventeen and stuff because they never appealed to me. I didn’t see myself as THAT girl and I still don’t. Though, I admit, I do like looking at beautiful woman but as they say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

    As far as social media is concerned, I wouldn’t put up suggestive pictures myself but I can see that a ton of people do.

    • You know, I use photos that highlight my better side, too. I admit that. I would say there’s a difference between making the look the centerpoint of your total offering versus what your offering. Being attractive is different than using your looks to objectify. In this case, the magazine jumped the shark a bit, IMO.

  • The cover made me sad because Mindy Kaling is immensely talented, and having her be the cover person about social media being sexy is completely off base.

    • Yup, and if the story covered her joke about being sexy better it might have worked, but sex is not mentioned contextually anywhere in the column.

  • Thoughtful piece here, Geoff.

    Dove appears to be taking aim more at body image and what constitutes “sexy”, however, and not necessarily sex appeal itself, yes?

    The ad from them above has gotten great traction but it is, at the end of the day, still a row of very attractive women standing around in their underwear. :P

    Cheers, sir.

    Jason Boies
    Salesforce Radian6

    • LOL, well said. It does appeal to the everyday women though who is tired of anorexic models.

      • You’re both right .. except these still aren’t ‘everyday’ women. I don’t see any belly rolls hanging over the underwear, no sagging boobs or celulite, no stretch marks. Everyone is relatively well-coifed, groomed, flat bellied (proportional to the rest). And yes, attractive which is what sells.

  • All I can think is that someone better hurry up and give one of those Victoria Secret models a sandwich for gods sake. If the bones in my knees were bigger than my hips, I’m not sure how much I’d be loving my body.

    At any rate, men and women are both as much to blame for the objectification of women. Every woman who decides to sell sex for profit is contributing to the stereotype. Every “if you got it, flaunt it” statement is another nail in the coffin. How about if you got it, shut the f*** up and do your job? Sex should sell for porn and underwear commercials. Otherwise it’s just media dictating what sexy is, stupid women trying to conform and men being men. Done.

    • It’s funny that you say that because another commenter said she was advised by a successful woman in our biz, if you got it, flaunt it. I think it’s a dangerous path, not just for advice, but also for the person. When it’s about how you look, and not your offering, a problem is bound to occur, even if it’s a question of age.

      Looking good is fine. It attracts people. It’s why I shave before every business meeting, wear a coat, don’t wear jeans when I speak, etc. But making yourself an object gets away from business value, and there is a huge problem.

      • Totally agree. Appearance is important insofar as you make a good impression. The reality is, we’re visual creatures and we make judgement based on what’s visually appealing. So shine your shoes, brush your hair and wear a nice shirt. There’s a difference!

      • I would love to hear how the commentator’s adviser recommended she flaunt it. Like flaunt your skin and bones? That’s not hot IMHO. Real women have curves and that is hot.

        • You’ll have to ask @disqus_WnFgnGfYmW:disqus about that.

          Personally, I agree with you. I know women like this, too, and I find it the flaunt it and use it approach to be repelling. I don’t like feeling manipulated.

  • “I don’t see anything wrong with sexiness, but how does it apply to the tactical use or profession of social media?” That’s the real question Geoff and unless your job is genetically freakish supermodel or actor, what does sexiness have to do w/ business or professionalism period?!

    Not talking about personal confidence or natural appeal, wanting to look your best. (And you’ve already covered media manipulation for sake of selling magazines; others like Newsweek also play the ‘sex’ card.) This is just one of those ‘if this were a man’ scenarios; no matter how bright and talented this person may be (don’t know her), it’s been stripped away to pander to this baselessness. Is sex appeal necessary for any man in business, minus the cast of ‘Magic Mike’? No. To quote “The Contender,” if it’s not relevant for a man, it shouldn’t be for a woman. FWIW.

    • I disagree with you on this. It is important for men to look good. It’s why I haven’t gotten tattoos below my elbows, or why I shave before business meetings, why I take care of my physique, and why I wear a pressed shirt for business meetings, too.

      I’m not saying I wear a form fitting shirt to show off my biceps. I am saying men should show people they care about the meeting by showing up with a certain level of personal care. This is salesmanship, regardless of gender.

      • And I disagree right back – it’s a completely different standard. Looking ‘good’ and professional can include a variety of styles per the individual.. and I’ve seen far more men pull off hoodies and tattoos and jeans, whatnot than any woman ever could. Salesmanship, yes it’s for us all but still different. Not saying it isn’t important for men to look good, you’re right — it is; but it is a different and tougher standard for women. And when we’re also talking about looking ‘sexy’ that’s a Catch-22 b/c it’s often perceived as the same.. if you look good, seem attractive it’s therefore ‘sexy’ but it’s then also ‘sexy’ not professional enough to be taken seriously.

        Back to your original post – w/ which I mostly agreed – trying to think of if a man would be in a suggestive pose was used to cover a business mag, and can’t see it. It’s b/c it’s not relevant to his skills, abilities and it shouldn’t be for a woman.

        • In your opinion, men get away with hoodies, tattoos and jeans. I have tattoos and NEVER show them in meetings. I’m here to tell you men who show up like that in meetings lose more than they think. They do not garner respect from their peers — other men, in particular — and lose deals.

          I would also suggest you peruse the magazine section at your local Barnes & Noble and tell me if men look like slobs on the covers or if they are portrayed in their best light.

          Thank you for differing opinion.

  • i can’t remember anything i just read all i can remember is the lingerie models..

    see what happens when you put sex in your blog~! ;)


  • Great thread! some great facts :)

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