selling sex

Making Out Marketing – the Next Stage of Selling with Sex

Selling sex in 2021 looks very different from previous iterations, like the ’90s “heroin chic” era.

As brands look to sell sex in the new age, it’s essential to consider new understandings of the politics of sex.

We’re currently in the midst of a new era of advertising and marketing. Gone are the “in-this-together”, “now-more-than-ever” montage videos. Instead something brighter, more optimistic, more hedonistic is coming: the summer of sex.

by Douglas Schowengerdt

The recent wave of raunchy ads, from Jacquemus to Suitsupply to Replens MD, are just the beginning. The upcoming flood of make-out marketing is bringing “sex sells,” the problematic fave of PR truisms, to the covid-vaccinated, Gen Z-led 21st century. So take this as your final warning.

Selling sex in 2021 looks very different from previous iterations, like the ’90s “heroin chic” era. These ads feature multiple people doing some action, rather than depicting a single person (almost always a woman) just being there to be seen as sexy. It’s less objectification, less of a male gaze, less reference to porn and more reference to affection and love.

More Joy in Loving

There’s emphasis on intimacy and human connection, with ads depicting couples kissing, embracing, or even licking each other’s faces. Fit for the next roaring ’20s, the content has a more celebratory, joyful tone that goes beyond feeling like an outright ploy to titillate and provoke––but of course, it is still provocative.

When brands begin posting thirst traps, we know a new era is upon us.

“Women are depicted in quite a different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

As a case study, let’s look at Diesel’s SS21, “When Together” campaign. The video and photos are centered on eight couples reuniting after spending time apart. Evoking sentiments of longing and reunion, the images are steamy and intense while feeling authentically loving. The campaign tells a story of celebration and surviving loneliness, a narrative that resonates with so many of us during this time.

Yes, Diesel is using sex to sell clothes, but it’s not sex as a suggestion of unfulfilled desire, overly produced and reinforcing unrealistic beauty standards. It’s sex between real people of different sexualities, ethnicities, and ages, shot in their own apartments. It’s sex as human expression, human emotion, love.

The Politics of Sex

This recent wave comes alongside many conversations about normalizing and decriminalizing sex work. The prevalence of OnlyFans and the tragic mass shooting in Atlanta, fueled by anti-Asian racism and whorephobia, have ignited interrogations of the stigma around sex work. This is where advertising and political activism can meet to reframe American views around sex, a connection some brands have already made.

The latest campaign from independent jewelry brand, CHRISHABANA champions queer people of color in sex work. This campaign conveys personal control and humanity, an uncommon narrative for mainstream representation of sex. Many other significant conversations about sex are happening now, specifically regarding women’s safety, abuse of power, and its intersections with racism and transphobia.

As brands look to sell sex in the new age, it’s essential to consider new understandings of the politics of sex. 

It’s all but certain that more thirst trap campaigns are to come, and we hope they continue to convey a modern-day sensibility. Consumer skepticism is still high, so it’s critical for brands to continue being thoughtful with their engagement.  Selling sex in the new age should be inclusive and intimate, providing feelings of safety, connection, and joy.

This translates into partnerships that are not only smart, but that champion the selected talent and their creative fields. “Horny on main” is not just a phase, so be prepared to embrace a bit more body positivity when considering influencers. Experiential work should consider the moments of affection that will occur once people can finally be together again, safely.

Douglas Schowengerdt
Cultural Correspondent. Douglas is a Berlin-based cultural correspondent for the brand strategy consultancy The Projects, with specific expertise in the realms of fashion, fine art, nightlife, and house music. They earned their bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, graduating with honors in American Studies and Art History. They are currently earning a master’s degree in American Studies from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The Projects

We create meaningful experiences + tell stories, by strategically connecting brands with people through cultural insight from offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Sydney.


Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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