Does sex actually sell?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know that they’re talking about. Today we wondered, does sexual imagery really help push products?
In recent years, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has changed the way people look at and shop for lingerie. The celebrity-filled extravaganza, featuring scantily-clad “Angels” stomping the runway and talking about their workout routines and preparations for the event in reality show-style confessionals, is unique in that it’s geared toward both men and women. And the Victoria’s Secret fantasy feels attainable to women who can shop the company’s “panty boutique” at 3/$33 and 5/$27.50.
At first glance, the massive success of the fashion event seems to suggest that sex (or sexiness) does, indeed, sell. But a recent study from researchers at Ohio State suggests that advertisers may be wasting their money by using sex to draw attention to their products. We turned to the experts for a closer look at the ins and outs of using sex in advertising and marketing.
Great sex sells and bad sex sells. Mediocre sex doesn’t. Why? No one buys anything they’ve never heard of. There’s no book or piece of music or movie that’s taken off and sold because it was invisible. To make a product visible, you need to draw our attention to it. Make us notice it and then get us talking about. You’ve got to be pushy. So yes, sex still sells because we still notice it. As long as it’s sex worth noticing.
Director of Communications and Public Education, Parents Television Council
There’s no evidence that “sex sells.” Quite the contrary, there is now ample evidence that using sex to sell products will backfire. A meta-analysis of 53 studies comprising 8,489 participants conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and published this summer in Psychological Bulletin concluded that, “Violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decrease advertising effectiveness.” Using sex and violence to sell products or services—even advertising in programs that contain sex and violence—is a bad strategy for maximizing ad recall and creating positive brand associations. By contrast, research shows that sponsoring family-friendly programming will help build brand equity, improve the ROI (Return On Investment) of advertising dollars, and even improve the chances that the ad will be remembered. From a programming perspective, family-friendly programs always beat programs loaded down with gratuitous sexual content. From a business perspective, it just doesn’t make sense for the networks to continue to churn out sexually graphic programming, and it doesn’t make sense for the advertisers to buy time on it.
The percentage of ads that contain sexual imagery in major product categories
Health and hygiene
Drugs and medicine
Jef Richards, JD, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University
Sex in advertising is a far more complex issue than most people think. Yes, depicting a scantily clad model in an ad can grab audience attention. The problem is that it also can suck that attention away from the product or service being sold. The consumer might later recall the model, but not the brand that bought the ad. The sexual sell works best when what you are selling is related to the sexual imagery, such that the model and the product are so intertwined that they can’t be easily pulled apart in the consumer’s memories. For example, a pretty girl in a bikini laying across the hood of a car has nothing to do with the car, the wheels on the car, or pretty much any other part of that vehicle. I may recall the girl and “a” car, but no specifics about that car. But that same model in an ad for bikinis may have a completely different impact, where I remember both the girl and the product. The simple fact is that most advertisers misuse sex in ads, to their own detriment.
Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D.
Professor & Land O’Lakes Chair in Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota
Lamenting about sex not selling has been around since at least the 1960s. Sexual images in ads can help improve ad attitudes, which likely is why it’s still so prominent. To be the most successful, and not turn women off, it is good to include images or text suggesting she’ll get something from it too, such as love, affection, loyalty, or gifts. While my work does not show that sex actually sells, we do find favorable ad attitudes, especially among men, for seeing sexual images in ads. When ads suggest that sex is connected to something special, rare, or a resource for women, then women tolerate sex-based ads. Meaning they do not like them as much as men do, but they find them more acceptable than when sex-based ads are without those other indicators.
Tom Reichert, Ph.D.
Georgia Athletic Association Professor & Department Head, Advertising and Public Relations, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia
Yes, sex does sell for mainstream consumer brands. What does Victoria’s Secret represent? A sexual appeal can be made for just about any product—okay, not diapers—but as long as people experience desires for love, intimacy, and romance, products positioned to allay those desires have a shot at success.
Globally, porn is a $97 billion industry, with between $10 and $12 billion coming from the United States.