Does Sex Really Sell?

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\"\"There’s an old adage in the advertising business: “Sex sells!” But does it?

The answer is yes and no. It depends on what products you’re trying to promote, to whom, and the imagery you use. Angel wings, lingerie and stilettos may work for Victoria’s Secret and sexual overtones get more men to pony up for those little blue pills. But it’s not going to get a rise out of consumers if you’re selling breakfast cereal or hemorrhoid ointment.

Let’s put academic arguments aside for the moment. Frankly, I’d be hard-pressed to think of many categories that don’t—at the very least—use subliminal messaging that ranges from the mildly suggestive to outright erotic. This is a business strategy based on innuendo and as every good ad man knows, there are few things that the human brain can’t conjure given the right incentive. The fact is that sex, or the idea of it, is one of the most powerful of human emotions, only one step behind self-preservation.

Drawing the Line

But in an age where a tidal wave of charges involving sexual misconduct, harassment and outright violence are being leveled against executives, politicians, actors and virtually every segment of society, and all the porn you want is just a mouse click away—where do marketers draw the line? Or do they have to?

Let’s take a step back and see where we started down what some see as a slippery slope. Without going back to cave drawings—Facebook for Neanderthals—the earliest example of sex in advertising was the Pearl Tobacco Company in 1871, which featured a partially nude woman on the package. This was actually a pioneering strategy since it was a time when women were generally considered household appliances rather than sex objects.

W. Duke & Sons Tobacco company began putting trade cards of provocatively dressed actresses in its cigarette packs and within a couple of years became the top selling brand. Other tobacco companies like Allen & Ginter, Cameron & Cameron, Goodwin & Co. and the Lone Jack Cigarette Co., did the same, proving that sexy ads alone are not going to keep you in business.

In the 1920s—the era of the fast and loose flapper—products like Woodbury Soap launched deliberately provocative ads. Of course what’s good for the goose… even earlier than this Ivory soap came out with an ad featuring naked sailors bathing together.

Sign of the Times

Moving ahead seven or eight decades on the sex timeline, Calvin Klein rocked the jeans world with his “Nothing gets between me and my Calvins” ad featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, a strategy that today would get few accolades and a five-year stretch in a federal pen. Meanwhile, decades later, sexual attraction is at the core of the company’s highly successful fragrances line. Clearly, something is working.

I won’t even get into the suggestive nature of image-focused cosmetic ads from a multitude of companies that are aimed at both men and women. However, it appears that the effectiveness of sex as a selling tool is cyclical and depends on whom you ask. Advertising executives would never give up the ghost on what is a highly lucrative strategy. On the other hand, many academics are a no vote on the subject. But they live in rarefied and controlled laboratory environments, not the mass market.

Yet, even those that say sex in advertising doesn’t work as well as you’d think will concede that it can influence buyers even if it only grabs their attention. Psychologists refer to this as a hardwired emotional response. But isn’t everything?


Three years ago a study by the American Psychological Association in Washington D.C. suggested that G-rated material might be better than an X-rating when it comes to sex and violence in media, advertising and content. In fact, the study’s authors found that there was almost no correlation between the increased effectiveness of ads with violent or sexual imagery. In fact, they are less effective.

This meta-analysis was significant since it included 53 experiments involving about 8,500 participants, measured advertising effectiveness in terms of brand recognition, brand attitudes and buying intentions. The extensive study included movies, television programs, video games and print.

There was some difference in viewers’ brand recognition and their intention to buy. Brands advertised during commercials with sexual overtones were viewed less favorably than those advertised in media with no sexual content.

Researchers Robert Lull and Brad Bushman stated that people have always been attracted to sex and violence, noting that it’s really part of our ancestral DNA which focused largely on subjugation and procreation. Apparently, human evolution is not everything it’s cracked up to be.

Round Robin

“The simplest answer is that advertisers think sex and violence sell, so they buy advertising time during sexual and violent programs, and in turn producers continue to create sexual and violent programs that attract advertising revenue.

“Our findings have tremendous applied significance for advertisers,” according to Bushman. “Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes and buying intentions for advertised products. Advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexual programs, and about using those themes in their ads.”

This brings up the question of who the consumer really is and what moves them to buy. There’s a raft of experts out there talking about seismic demographic, behavioral and attitudinal shifts among consumers who are generally better educated and more savvy than their predecessors.

There’s also the issue of whether consumers have become so jaded by a constant barrage of overt and subliminal sexual content that it no longer means much. In other words, it may convince someone to buy a product once. But does it keep them coming back?

Ads vs. Brands

The evidence is mounting. A study done last year by University of Illinois advertising professor John Wirtz involved the meta-analysis of 79 separate studies. It found that people remember ads with sex appeal but not necessarily the brand.

It’s interesting to think that millions upon millions of dollars in ad money is really being wasted—at least among women. Men, creatures with baser instincts, found these ads more appealing.

Can three decades worth of consumer research be wrong? The evidence is mounting. But sex attracts attention ad therefore, to some degree, sells products. There is little evidence that advertisers are not taking this to heart.

You can do all the meta-studies you want. But even researchers point out that experiments are done in an artificial environment with a limited number of people. In the real world, ads are seen by many different types of people multiple times.

There is such a thing as target marketing to increase ad effectiveness. But even without it, people want to feel better about themselves, to be or at least feel more desirable and satisfy an innate need for intimacy.

This is the essence of advertising and it’s unlikely to change drastically no matter what the political and social climate.

After all we’re only human!



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