It Looks Like Sex Might Not Sell After All

Advertising is a hard endeavour. Some products simply lack the inherence appeal needed to sell themselves. How do you get people excited about buying car insurance or diapers? When facing a challenging product, advertisers get creative with their marketing.

One of the oldest tricks in the book is sex appeal. Whether it’s scantily clad men and women selling beer, cars, makeup, or virtually anything else, the sexual attraction to the human body has long been used in modern marketing. This is where we get the saying “sex sells”.

But does it? Research from the University of Illinois suggested otherwise.

The Logic of Sex

On the surface, it might seem weird to use sexual appeal and suggestion to sell things. After all, what do images that border on softcore porn have to do with selling hamburgers?

The logic of using sex to sell comes from emotional appeal. It is simple: sometimes, we make decisions based on our feelings rather than logic itself. If something makes us happy or sad, angry or excited, our decision-making process is affected. Since sexual imagery can certainly affect physical and mental states, it should work too, right?

This type of tactic is meant to circumnavigate the rational parts of our brain. Those parts that would say “no” to buying something pointless need to be shut down in the eyes of advertisers. If sexual appeal can do just that, why not use it?

The Latest Research

One reason not to is because it might be counterproductive, according to a recent meta-analysis from the University of Illinois. This research project looked at over 80 advertising studies published over three decades. Their findings, which covered around 10,000 participants, concluded that sexual appeal in advertising is only effective in one particular area.

If a company wants viewers to remember an ad, sexual appeal is a good tool. The study found that ads featuring models partially or fully nude, engaging in sexual touching or other sexually suggestive actions were more memorable.

However, this doesn’t mean the ad was effective. People who remember an ad but don’t take action won’t become customers of the company. In other words, these ads do nothing to cement the brand and product in the minds of potential customers.

Why This Matters

Besides challenging one of the most commonly assumed adages in the advertising world, this research also offers some insight into the human mind. How we make decisions, particularly when money is on the line, is an important process to understand. Whether it’s advertising, persuasion, or just general action, human thought is at the center of it all. Businesses wanting to be successful need to understand what works and what doesn’t.

More importantly, it also challenges the basic assumptions some advertisers use to justify certain negative practices. It has long been documented that the oversaturation of sex symbols and imagery in mass advertising can have a negative impact on viewers, especially the youth. This new research takes away some of the utility companies can use to justify such an approach.

Will this radically change the current trends in the advertising world? Probably not. We shouldn’t expect a dramatic and immediate shortage of sex symbols and icons, but it at least provides a basis for future change. With companies like Carl’s Jr. already turning away from sex appeals, it’s not a far-fetched idea.


Originally published at DevAD Magazine.