Does sex really sell?

Today, more than ever, sex is rampant in marketing, bolstered by the notion that “Sex Sells”, but a new study reveals that this may not in fact be the case.

Since the beginning of modern advertising, sexual themes and imagery have been used to sell products. Some of the earliest sexual ads were created by tobacco companies in the late 1800s. One such method was done by embedding “trading cards” in cigarette boxes, illustrating naked or partially clothed women.

Soon after, soap companies adopted this method by selling the idea of sex in their print ads. Woodbury, a popular soap company of the time, came out with an ad that depicted a man embracing a woman and using the tagline “A skin you love to touch”. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sexual implications here…

But does this marketing tactic actually work?

The American Psychological Association (APA) published a study that combined data from 53 experiments, totaling 8,489 participants, which examined the effects of sexual and violent content within advertising. The study ultimately concluded that sex never helps brand memory; it either has no affect in marketing or it hurts.

The theory for this is based on the idea that violence and sex are more taxing on our attention than non-violent or non-sexual content because of our primal instincts for survival and reproduction.  When ads use violent or sexual content, our attention goes more towards the sexual and violent content at the expense of our focus being on the actual brand or product itself! Because we are busy looking at a tantalizing scene, our focus is diverted from the actual product and we remember the brands less!

So what does this mean for the future of advertising? Are ads going to change? Can I watch TV now without seeing a sexualized woman “eating” a burger from Carl’s Jr.?

Though the study makes an overall claim about sex not selling, the specific results insinuate some other possibilities.

The study found that sexual content within an ad causes consumers to have a lesser attitude toward the brand (reminds me of how I’ve refused to spend a single penny at American Apparel…), but this does not result in a decrease of sales (at the end of the day, most of us aren’t all that consumer conscious).

Another find is that as sexual content increases (i.e. a nude model in an explicitly sexual position as opposed to a romantic couple holding hands), memory of the brand, attitude towards the brand, and buying intentions of the brand’s product decreased. However, this implies that sexually implicit ads may still be effective.

Additionally, if an advertisement and the media in which the ad was aired are thematically congruent, then brand memory and buying intentions increased. So if I want to watch a show like Game of Thrones, I’d be expected to remember the sexual ads more and buy those products.

There are other studies which purport similar findings when it comes to the idea that sex doesn’t sell. For example, one study found women were averse to ads using sex to sell cheap products.

Brands like Abercrombie and Fitch and American Apparel released press statements this year that they will be de-sexualizing their ads in an attempt to increase sales. So while I can’t yet escape the notoriously sexist Jack in the Box commercials, or avoid objectified women in ads on the corner of my screen whenever perusing the web, there are some promising signs that a change may be on the horizon, and for now, that’s good enough for me.

Alessandra Lichtenfeld is currently pursuing her dreams of becoming a writer and filmmaker for social justice. She is particularly interested in media’s portrayal of women and the effect media has on a culture’s values.

6 thoughts on “Does sex really sell?

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  1. Underlying all this is the fact that there is a huge, inaccurate assumption with the phrase “sex sells”, as if it is sex in general. The “sex” that has always been used to sell is overwhelmingly the straight male idea of sexuality. Naked or partially clothed, idealised women only are not my idea of “sex”. Aside from the interesting findings of these studies in regard to “sex” being a distraction away from branding, it’s no surprise that some studies have found that many women have not got into that type of marketing!!!

  2. It’s been my understanding that ads that use sex to sell do work – to sell sex. Not to sell the product. What happens is it reminds (some) people how much they enjoy or want sex. To use sex to sell products (which is widely done) is to continue to exploit women AND men. I think it’s a poor choice on the part of advertisers.

  3. You mentioned Jack in the Box as the purveyors of the bikini clad burger eating commercials. Those are Carl’s Jr. commercials. Jack in the Box uses witty humor in their ad campaigns.

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