Creative Project: The Sexualization of Religion in Advertising

Sex sells. It always has and most likely always will. Along with the sexualizing of men and women in advertisements, using religion also proves to be a prominent style in marketing. Both styles of advertisement are very influential and popular culture. Many companies have advertised their products in a way that uses both sex (the sinful) and religion (the sacred). This post will closely examine how and why several specific advertisements have chosen to use the sexualizing of religion to gain attention.

PETA is known for loving controversy, something that is very obvious in many of their campaigns. According to this ad by PETA, eating meat is a sin. The ad features Angela Simmons, a television personality, clothing designer and overall a beautiful woman. Simmons is photographed almost nude, with long luscious hair and glowing skin; generally very alluring. This photo may be very appealing to an audience, especially a male audience. It can be argued that the majority of men are meat lovers and therefore this ad is aimed towards them. Will this sexualized ad motivate men to become vegetarians? It is possible but it may also be unlikely, however it will not cease to catch people’s attention. The sexy component to this ad is not the sole reason for catching ones attention; religion also plays a large role in PETA’s advertisement. Simmons appears to be portraying Eve from the bible, eating the forbidden fruit. This reference to religion and to the bible is used in advertising to get closer to and attract audiences (Cernat, 145). While this may be true, the advertisement is rather provocative, causing controversy along with its awareness. PETA is using the sacred, Eve, and sexualizing her. However, the controversy does not stop there seeing as the ad is insinuating that eating meat is as sinful as the temptation that Eve faced. Christians may find this sexualized ad, comparing the sin of Eve to eating meat as offensive and false in relation to the Bible.

Antonio Federici is an Italian gelato brand that got their advertisements banned by UK authorities because it was inappropriate and blasphemous. Unsurprisingly, it offended many Catholics (The World Post, 2010). It was criticized as too provocative, mixing religion with sexual appeal. In the video, a student is shown a nun holding a tub of ice cream, wrapping her legs around a shirtless priest. The message “submit to temptation” is very explicit. Another banned advertisements of theirs showed two priest about to kiss. Although Antonio Federici generated a lot of criticism and controversy, there is an infamous saying that states “There is no such thing as bad publicity”. Their ad campaign in 2009 featuring a pregnant nun was equally controversial (Macleod, 2010). It captured people’s attention and got media coverage. Even if was negative attention, the buzz is what keeps the brand relevant and in people’s mind. Offending a small minority was something they were willing to sacrifice while targeting a wider range of consumers. It is evident that Antonio Federici purposely repeated a controversial campaign that mixed sexual imagery with religion. Their comment “celebrating forbidden Italian temptations” and slogan “Ice cream is our religion” makes it conspicuous that this was strategically planned from the beginning (Macleod, 2010).

Seconds into the Victoria secret advertisement, the viewer noticed that all of the girls were skinny, with an ideal body, and wearing revealing lingerie. This ad is contrary to various religious teachings, and the increasing sexualisation in advertising and the media demonstrates the waning religious influence. This advertisement targets both of the sexes, not just women. The image of the ideal body draws women in, and men are also interested because of the open sexuality. However, the image of women being portrayed is harmful to society, and discriminates against them. The models feature by Victoria’s secret, also known as “Angels”, are portrayed by the media as the standard by which society is to strive for. Religion argues against open sexuality and teaches women to have humility and modesty. For instance, the bible teaches that women should dress in a respectable manner:

“Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire (Timothy, 2:9)”

This increasing sexuality also evidently displays the Secularization Thesis, which argues that as a society develops, it becomes less religious. However, this increasing image of sexuality also has other side effects on society. As the images are openly displayed, they can affect the minds of youth, which will result in a loss of value in the body. Girls are seen simply for their bodies, and are pressured to conform. The more encouraging a society is about meaningless and casual sex, the less it will value relationships and long-term commitments, which can have devastating affects on the family unit. This Victoria Secret ad and others abusing the sexuality of women are harmful to society and these images, although enjoyed by many, defy various aspects of many religious teachings.

Consumers react to religion being sexualizaed in advertising.

Based on what we have gathered from our one-on-one interviews, along with a number of past experiences and encounters with ads that have appeared on screens, televisions, magazines, and other forms in our daily lives, it is no surprise that we conclude that advertisers have turned to the presentation and use of nudity and sexual images in order to draw attention to, and entice, the interest of their intended audience. What is most interesting, however, is the way in which these advertisers have incorporated these sexual images with concepts/narratives from various religious traditions (the examples we have used here have mainly adopted Christian symbols). While this mix between the “sinful” (sex/sexuality) and the “sacred” (religion) is a contradictory combination at first glace, scholars are argued that this duality caters to a deeper instinct within the viewing audience.

In “Advertising, Gender Stereotypes and Religion,” Mihaela Frunza writes that:

Ideological commitments belong not only to their creators, but more important, they belong to the consumers: “advertisers conventionalize our conventions, stylize what is already a stylization, make frivolous use of what is already something considerably cut off from contextual controls. Their hype is hyper-ritualization.” Narratives of advertisements are particularly powerful because they establish connections between the world of people and the world of merchandise or, more recently of brands (Frunza, 75).

Therefore, advertisers use our social ideologies that we are familiar with, that have already been created and are part of our culture, and exploit them to take the consumer into the world of the brand through a means they are familiar with. According to scholar, Maria Cernat: “Advertising uses religious symbols to get closer to the audiences.”(Cernat, 145). It is because we are familiar with these concepts and symbols that we have an instinctual response to certain images, even if they are represented in a way that does not follow what we would have originally associated it with. For example, in our one-on-one interviews we see the repeated symbol of the angel, and it is assumed that the angel would typically produces ideas of innocence and of the divine. We then realize that these angels are shown practically nude, and while angels in Christian traditions are commonly shown nude, there is an emphasis on the sexual aspect of these ads through the objectifying portrayal of their “angelic” female bodies. While this is surely meant to entice the curiosity of the viewer, these brands are also exploiting our instinctual reactions and the elevated ideas that we associate with religious symbols in order to create a lens that frames the brand within the same kind of elevated regard.

Even though this mix between the sacred and the profane may seem controversial to many religious followers (a reaction that has also exploited as an advertising technique), the growing secularization of society continues to affirm the belief that this duality between religion and sexuality in advertising is here to stay. Cernat states that: “Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court started recognizing the “neutrality” principle, according to which the state must assume a neutral position in relation to religion. Blasphemy statutes have been repeatedly struck down as unconstitutional.”(Ibid). So, while this relationship between religion and consumerism has proven to be a controversial and concerning matter to various members of society, you can expect to continue to see more sexy fallen angels wrapped in lace while walking down the street, or on your screen, in the future.


Cernat, Maria. “The Role of Relgion in Advertising: Case-Study on the “Batman” TV Commercial.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 13, no. 39 (2014): 140–163.

Frunza, Mihaela. “Advertising, Gender Sterotypes and Religion. A Perspective from the Philosophy of Communication.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 14, no. 40. (2015): 72–91.

Macleod, Duncan. “Antonio Federici Ice Cream Religion — The Inspiration Room.” The Inspiration Room. September 17, 2010. Accessed November 28, 2015.

The World Post. “Http://" The World Post, September 15, 2010. Accessed November 24, 2015.