Sex sells, or so goes the advertising truism. Images that titillate have become commonplace, they are used to market everything from cigarettes to cellphones but as a result some of their power has been lost. As viewers we are bombarded with overtly sexual imagery on a daily basis – to the point where we have become desensitized to the visual onslaught of nudity and innuendo. A creative riff on these familiar gimmicks can provoke response but often there is little creativity to be found. Why bother with imagination or art direction when T&A will do?

Nowhere is this dearth of new ideas more glaringly evident than on our newsstands. With exception of artsy standouts like Butt, Purple & the newly relaunched French Playboy, the more carnal a publication’s intentions are the less inspired their imagery tends to be. The envelope has been pushed to its natural limitations – anything goes but nothing inspires. Looking back to the infinitely less libertine days of the past one can see marked difference in the way sex was packaged for consumption.

The early days of publications like Playboy and Lui (it’s slinkier French counterpart) represent the nexus of sensuality and design purity. Playboy’s golden age from the mid 60s and into the early 70s, under the direction of Art Paul resulted in the magazine’s most suggestively understated covers. Seduction is inferred rather than announced. The precise placement of a rabbit eared chair reveals just enough of the body to entice while creating a perfectly composed picture. A sullen and aloofly sensual look in Olga Schoberova’s eyes signals the boredom behind beauty and clues us into the mindset of every single centerfold. Even the most chaste representations of the female form – take the almost prim image of a smiling girl in a sweater – are twice as alluring as the current overly plastic pneumatic vixens.

If there is one trait the early covers bestow upon their subjects it is personality. Each woman is distinctive – even if her persona relies heavily on societal constructs of feminity it is still more evocative than the homogenized variant of sexuality we see today within the same magazine. The tides of what is provocative have shifted towards a decidedly more hardcore point of view but with this shift certain key elements of style have been lost. Sex sells but when did it sell out and become just another bland caricature?