Why is There So Much Sex in Food Advertising?

Did you just watch a supermodel in a bikini eat a burger and think…that’s ridiculous! Well, a lot of food advertising is ridiculous. Sometimes it is the reason behind its effectiveness. Sometimes it just proves how numb the world is to the images they watch stream by, not stopping to analyze their deeper meaning. Now, let’s take a quick minute to contemplate how sex sells food and the relationship between food and sex in general.

Similarities Between Food and Sex

Sex sells. But, in the case of sex in food advertising it doesn’t just sell. It is something that has been compared to food artistically, philosophically, and linguistically for hundreds of years. Amongst friends, it is quite common to say, “Oh my god! I just had a food orgasm,” or “That steak tartar was better than sex!” We use food emojis to represent, well, various things.

Eggplant Emoji Means Sex
The infamous eggplant emoji.

Loose science continues to prove and disprove that certain foods are aphrodisiacs, such as chocolate, oysters, or even avocados. Specific diets go in and out of fashion, all boasting about their ability to magically bestow upon any adherent supreme sex appeal. In short, sex and food have been culturally intertwined in more ways than just the following examples of sex in food advertising.

Sigmund Freud defined Eros as the life drive, which includes breathing, eating, and procreation. These are the basic things that ensure the persistence of our species and comprise the instinct. So, according to the father of psychoanalysis, besides the automatic act of breathing, our desires are fulfilled mostly by food and sex. Let’s see how advertisers play with these two distinct yet related urges.

 Creative Food Project Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing Sex Advertising
Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing, “once you go Italian, you’ll never go back”. © Kraft Foods

Showing Skin is Delicious?

People are extremely body conscious nowadays. There are thousands of articles about fat-burning foods, how eating organic will get you in shape, or lists of food that go straight to your hips. Really, for the most part, this is all sensationalism. If you are a vegetarian who eats cheese ravioli every night and an Impossible Burger with french fries for lunch you might gain weight on your new diet. Coffee is a great example of a food/drink that is constantly claimed to cause depression, kill cancer cells, cause heart attacks, and also prevent them.

A very interesting campaign for its well-rounded and multi-platform tactics is the Italian zesty man. Written for women by women, the creators of this campaign said that they wanted to make woman hot. The skin in this ad comes in a sort of striptease as he gets dirtier and dirtier from cooking, needing to take off more and more clothes.

Sophie Monk Chili Peppers Creative Food Project
Will Sophie Monk will turn you into a vegetarian? © PETA

A vegetarian since her teenage years, Sophie Monk is featured in this PETA advertisement atop a bed of hot peppers. Her tan, glowing skin, and thin figure make her the literal poster girl of vegetarianism. The image has a nice simplicity to it, the hair creates an interesting shape, the chili peppers function as a good background because of their color and repetition. The ad’s subtext concerns how food has the ability to ruin or beautify our bodies. The body is sexual currency, thus our food choices directly relate to our sexual satisfaction.

chupa chups breasts Creative Food Project
Chupa chups lollipops markets to adults. © Chupa Chups

Nudes in art can entertain our artistic senses or our libido. In all of these examples the body is seen in a fairly unsurprising position. The girls are posed with glistening skin, showing off a slight protrusion of ribs and only slightly hidden breasts. The light on the Italian zesty man is a bit harsher to show off the shadows created by lumps of muscle mass. Basically it is what you would expect in terms of lighting and composition from advertisers.

The naked body is one of the most interesting shapes to work with in any art medium. We all have these things called bodies and are fascinated by them. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more creative uses of sex in food advertising? Maybe intriguing poses that focus on the form of the body rather than the function of the body part?

Creative food project food in focus
Shock-value focused advertisement for adults.

Suggestive Food Shapes

There are many suggestively shaped foods that have the power to shift the viewer’s interpretation to something you never intended. It is an aspect of how people think and something to always be aware of. In these advertisements “explicit” body parts are depicted in order to entice the viewer.

To celebrate 18 years, the Canadian restaurant review, Guide Restos Voir, made a campaign with the theme “18+”. The text reads, “Happy to make your mouth water for 18 years.” This image (above) relies on the appearance of a vulva to make people’s heads turn or do a double take. Shaping food to look like genitalia doesn’t really make it look more appetizing, nor does it arouse like food advertising with nearly naked bodies.

The purpose of these advertisements is to capture the fleeting gaze of magazine readers and Internet users who can’t believe what they think they just saw. As our lives become more and more visually polluted and media forged at ever more lightening fast rates, advertisers feel a pressure to go extreme in order to get our attention. Emulating explicit imagery with innocuous forms is one method of many. Other attention getting photographic techniques include over-saturation, GIFs, and direct eye contact from models.

Burger Breasts Arbys
Burger breasts at Arby’s. © Arby’s

The same is true with this ad from Arby’s. Two burgers sitting side-by-side is not enough to draw a comparison to breasts, nor to attract attention to their ads. The photography is not so interesting and the food is hardly featured. The sole purpose of ads like these is to fool their audience for enough time to get them to stop skimming, even a split-second, before diving into the text of the advertisement afterward.

London For Lovers Egg Creative Food Project
Eurostar trains invites you to breakfast the morning after. © Eurostar International Ltd.

The advertisement above illustrates the greater possibilities of sexually suggestive imagery in food. The image is less obvious than the previous examples. It still captures people’s attention as they try to figure out what it is, or perhaps immediately recognize what it refers to. The baked beans are quintessentially British, but there is a lot more latent narrative here. Those train cabins must be comfortable!

Macaroni Food in Focus Food Porn
Velvety, melty macaroni and cheese  with suggestive and tempting copy. © Kraft Foods

Food porn: Your Burning Desire

Most pornography is not a depiction of what most people would call healthy sex. Food porn is the same. A grapefruit and arugula salad will struggle to elicit the same arousing effect that a pile of nachos can. In this day and age, eating fatty or unhealthy foods is much more shameful than it was in the past. This idea definitely affects females more than males, as their diets are more scrutinized. Food advertising plays to these hidden desires by using food porn, along with tempting or reassuring text.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is a product that all would agree is not the healthiest. The text of the ad that accompanies a food porn staple, melted cheese, seems to be taken from a sexual context. The two desires here are paralleled, while the self-denial of  “sinful” foods is alluded to as well. Another note for photographers should be to avoid taking photos of cheese that looks like mucous.

Twix Creative Food Project Food Porn
Twix commercials focus on melted caramel. © Mars, Inc. 2016.

Twix and many other chocolate and candy brands visually tempt customers into a stomach ache by using closeups of melting sweet substances, in this case (above) caramel. Just like the reality of the sexual fantasies in pornography, food porn is often just disappointing in real life.

Carl's Jr Burger Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton must really like Carl’s Jr. burgers. © Carl’s Jr. Restaurants LLC.

The Hypocrisy of Sexy Fast Food Ads

The consistency with which fast-food ads objectify women is staggering. One famous example from Carl’s Jr. illustrates how these ads function. They literally equate a woman to a piece of meat. The commercials are directed towards young men. Stephen T.F. Poon writes for the International Journal of Advances in Social Science and Humanities that “for the advertiser, having pretty ‘objects’ speak on behalf of their products is a strategic counteraction for unwholesomeness.” Counteraction here could also be stated as hypocrisy because the food in no possible world could help sculpt the skinny figures of the models.

Photographically, the high-fashion glamour style is way over-the-top in these ads. Overhead lights illuminate the bright blond hair blowing in the wind, a Bentley is seen in the background with shiny reflections to show off its curves. Just like the obvious artifice of the set, the (nearly) impossible idea of burgers leading to sexual pleasure is only believed by the immature audience of young males this ad targets.

Real Fries, Fake Breasts Creative Food Project
Poking fun at Carl’s Jr. and Arby’s?

Use Sex in Food Advertising, But Be Creative!

Including sex in advertising food photography is a great idea. In many fields there are direct parallels between the two, but all too often the potential of a great concept is reduced to two burgers for breasts. Perhaps we could take great photos that focus on the romantic atmosphere food provides, or use the naked body to its full potential. Why not use different lighting styles when including muscles and curves? Sex in food advertising is also a topic ripe for parody (see above). Inspiration can be drawn from these ads according to your opinion, in a positive or negative way.

Trends in Food Advertising

What new food company has the coolest image? Who’s pushing boundaries? What is the most recent and creative food photography used in an ad campaign? We answer these questions with fresh posts about all the trends in food advertising. Written for foodies and food creatives. Each article contains in-depth analysis of not only photography, but graphic design, copywriting, and economic trends as well. Learn from examples of successful food advertisements how you can get in touch with your audience and impress!