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Does Sex Sell?

Before we close this chapter, we need to talk about the 800-pound gorilla of marketing: sex. (Cue dramatic music, with red arrows pointing to Figure 2.39.)


FIGURE 2.39 From romance novels to laundry detergent, sex is everywhere—but does it sell? (Image Credit: Majdanski/Shutterstock)

Hooking sex to products has a long history. Starting with Pearl Tobacco (1871) and continuing with Woodbury’s Facial Soap, Jovan Musk Oil, Benetton, Carl’s Jr., Victoria’s Secret, and the poster child for sex in advertising, Calvin Klein jeans, each of these company’s fortunes turned from poor to profitable by painting a direct line from their products to sex (see sidebar, page 49).

Still, does sex sell? In a word: maybe. Even today, with sex in advertising seemingly everywhere, there’s no guarantee that it works.

Matt Flowers, CEO of Ethos Copyrighting, wrote in his blog that if your audience is interested in sex, “Remember that they have access to that content with just the click of a button. So you have to ask yourself, ‘why try to compete with the plethora of online sites that make sex their sole business?’”3

According to Magda Kay, writing in Psychology Today, “If you ever wondered whether using sex in advertising helps to sell, here is the answer: it does. Actually, [sex] is one of the strongest and most effective selling tools. The relationship between sex and marketing is a winning combination for almost any business. However, if you don’t know how to use it, you’re risking putting off your potential customers.”4

According to Psychology Today, a literature survey in 2017 by Wirtz, Sparks, and Zimbres sought to determine the effects of sexually provocative ads. They assessed effectiveness in terms of:

  • squ.jpg   How well the ads were recalled

  • squ.jpg   Whether they generated a positive or negative reaction

  • squ.jpg   How the sexually oriented ad compared to a similar ad without the innuendo

  • squ.jpg   What people thought about the brand

  • squ.jpg   Whether the ad actually generated sales

The results were interesting. In summary:

  • squ.jpg   In terms of capturing attention, sex works. However, people remembered the ad more than the brand. “While sex might be attention-grabbing, it didn’t seem especially good at getting people to remember the objects being sold.”

  • squ.jpg   Regarding people’s attitude toward the ads, they were modestly positive for men and modestly negative for women. In other words, it was essentially a wash.

  • squ.jpg   Curiously, both men and women expressed negative feelings, on the whole, for brands that used sex to sell things.

  • squ.jpg   When it came to purchase intentions, it seemed that sex didn’t really sell, but it didn’t really seem to hurt, either.

“While it might be useful for getting eyes on your advertisement, sex is by no means guaranteed to ensure that people like what they see once you have their attention. In that regard, sex—like any other advertising tool—needs to be used selectively, targeting the correct audience in the correct context if it’s going to succeed at increasing people’s interest in buying. Sex in general doesn’t sell.”5

In a 2015 study, authors Robert B. Lull and Brad J. Bushman of Ohio State University wrote, “Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonviolent, nonsexual ads. There were no significant effects of sexual ads on memory or buying intentions. …As intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased.”7

I think a good way to summarize these findings is that sex gets attention but doesn’t always drive behavior. Also, keep in mind that sexy ads tend to go hand in hand with objectification. Even today, with raised awareness caused by the #MeToo movement, women are still five times more likely to be shown in revealing clothing than men. As well, sexy ads tend to reinforce stereotypes. “Recent 2017 research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media,” Matt Flowers wrote, “found that women were 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen than their male counterparts. Moreover, men are 89% more likely to be depicted as smart in comparison to women.”

Matt Flowers continued, “Sexual content in the age of digital marketing is alive and well as far as organic content is concerned, but you’re not going to run a pay-per-click campaign with that strategy. While innuendos can be funny, suggestive themes can be stylish, and sex can sell, it’s important that marketers consider their audience carefully so as not to offend potential customers nor be provocative for the sake of publicity.

“While using sex in advertising can be a successful tool for drumming up sales, it can also have negative consequences for both your reputation and our culture. For that reason, get to know your brand, what it stands for, and who your audience is.”8

Sex is like any other image. Used with purpose and with an understanding of your message and audience, it can work. Used simply to attract the eye without connecting it to your product or message means your visuals join the thousands of others that our eyes glaze over each day.

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