'Sex sells' – Why beauty brands like Nars and Charlotte Tilbury are going X-rated

Francesca Specter
Yahoo Style UK deputy editor
Beauty brands like Nars and Charlotte TIlbury are using sexually-explicit marketing. [Photo: Nars]

Nars is making headlines for a “sexually-explicit” marketing video, which depicts a lipstick melting into a “penis” shape.

The marketing video, shared yesterday on Nars’ Instagram channel, features the caption: “When the nudes keep you up all night”.

It promotes the brand’s newest range of lipsticks.

READ MORE: Why Fenty Beauty's latest highlighter has been labelled offensive

The marketing campaign is a step up even for Nars, a brand most famous for its sell-out “Orgasm” blusher together with its newer “Climax” mascara – and it has raised eyebrows on Twitter, with some saying they have gone “too far”.

Meanwhile, model Chrissy Teigen is seemingly a fan.

But Nars isn’t the only major beauty brand gaining attention for its sexually-suggestive marketing.

READ MORE: Man argues women wearing lipstick is too 'sexual' for the workplace

It follows hot on the heels of Charlotte Tilbury, which launched its “Walk of Shame” eye palette and lipstick last week.

The range in question has received a mixed response on social media, with some taking issue with its title – saying it is “tone deaf” and offensive to women.

Whether or not you are on board with the latest ad campaigns, they represent a rise in sexually-explicit marketing within the beauty industry in recent years.

The products are a notch up from provocatively named products such as Too Faced’s cult-favourite Better Than Sex mascara, Benefit’s “They’re Real” mascara campaign (which rests on a double entendre between a woman’s breasts and a pair of eyelashes) and Tom Ford’s Pussy Power lipstick, launched in 2018.

Then there’s Frank Body, a range of coffee body scrubs and moisturisers which employed provocative marketing slogans such as “get naked. get dirty. get rough. get clean” to generate over $20 million in annual revenue in 2017.

So what’s behind the sexualisation of beauty products?

Sex sells

Beauty companies are increasingly going by the age-old philsophy that “sex sells,” explains marketing expert Emily Austen, founder of Emerge.

“Sex has been proven to sell across a number of industries such as music, food and fashion,” she tells Yahoo UK.

This is because it taps into a familiar pattern of behaviour.

“Tagging a product into a behavioural cycle makes it easier for consumers to understand how and where they would use the product, and sex is an easy way to do that.”

The link between beauty and sexuality

There are all sorts of reasons why women wear make-up – from increasing self-confidence, feeling more professional and pulled together, and artistic expression.

Yet, it still stands that make-up is often used in a sexual attraction context, says Austen – and often this is centred around female sexuality.

“Wide eyes, flushed glowing skin, and bigger, glistening lips are female features used to connote sexual inferences,” she argues. “It is indisputable that make up is often used in situations that denote attraction and enhance both our confidence and our attractiveness to the opposite sex.”

We’re more comfortable discussing sex

The rise of shows such as ‘Love Island’ and ‘First Dates’ has created “a more inclusive environment in which young people can share and discuss intimate details of their sex life and sexual fantasies,” says Austen.

The shock factor

In short, sex still shocks us – especially when companies increasingly push boundaries with their campaigns.

These beauty companies are looking for contentious and exciting names and ad campaigns in order to grab the attention of their growing, and vocal, audiences, millennials and Gen Z.

The more something is shocking, the more likely it is to be shared, explains Austen.

“Shareability, shock factor, and leveraging divisive conversation is important for click-bait, and engaging a younger audience, whose currency is social media,” she says.

Where to draw the line?

While some beauty brands might manage to strike a balance, companies need to be careful to avoid the “misrepresentation of both men and women”, argues Toby Britton, CMO of marketing platform Miappi.

However, done in the right way, Britton believes brands can “benefit from celebrating sexuality”.

He says: “There is no room for being prudish in today's age of transparency, inclusivity and tackling taboos.

“Some brands like Frank Body have developed a tongue in cheek brand personality using sexual terminology, which has resulted in hundreds of brand advocates online and lots of social engagement.”