Yes, s#x does sell (at least sometimes)
It can be a turn-on when the ad targets men
October 26, 2005
Does sex really sell? Advertisers have been asking that question for decades, and a new study by MediaAnalyzer Software and Research in Somerville, Mass., attempts to find some answers. The study was conducted in September from a pool of 200 men and 200 women online and it involved a visual test that tracked the attention spans of its subjects. Some of the results would seem to back conventional wisdom: 63 percent of men said sexual ads have high stopping power, while 58 percent of women said there is too much sex in TV advertising. But how much sex is too much? When does it become an ad turnoff for consumers? MediaAnalyzer president and CEO Karsten Weide talks with Media Life about whether sex really sells, when sex in advertising works best, and who is most turned off by it.
What did you find most surprising about the results of this study?
Well, one result that is surprising is that sex in ads might work for women as well as men if it’s feminine sex, or soft sex. We can’t really say that for sure, though.
Like a picture of a handsome man or a couple talking with each other. But there were only two ads in the test like this, so it’s only a hypothesis at the moment.
Another hypothesis that I agree with but which we can’t prove from the study is that upon seeing a sexual ad your brain can become so overwhelmed with lust or disgust that it becomes clogged, so it doesn’t process what it’s seeing as quickly.
The study shows a big difference between the percent of men who respond to sex in advertising (48 percent) and those who are sufficiently influenced by the sexual content to actually buy things (8 percent). And that latter number is even lower for women. Does that mean that sex really doesn’t sell?
Well, first of all the figures could be low because nobody wants to admit they are influenced that way, but reality shows they are. The sexy ads were liked by more respondents, and similarly more people liked the product. When people like an ad and like a product, that translates into purchase intent.
Only one-third of men and 11 percent of women said they remembered the brand after viewing a sexy ad. Why so low?
In looking at a sexual ad, men spend a lot of time looking at a woman’s legs, her bust, knees and naked skin. This takes away from the amount of time they’re focused on the brand’s logo. And women don’t look at the sexual imagery at all, so they don’t focus on the brand either.
Can sexed-up advertising actually do more harm than good for advertiser, considering so many women rate them low?
It really only makes sense if you are advertising to men exclusively. It also helps if it’s a well-established brand. If it is, then the poor brand recall doesn’t really hurt you. One ad the study looked at was a MasterCard ad with a woman with huge cleavage that appeared in a men’s magazine. It was not hurt by the lack of brand recall because MasterCard is so well known.
If women control the purse strings, as we are so often told, and yet they don’t respond to sex in advertising as favorably as men, they why do we see so much of it?
It’s a powerful tool that works among men. Also, I also think maybe advertisers aren’t completely aware of its effects.
What’s the most important thing media buyers and planners can learn from this study?
There are three times that we found it’s best to use sexy advertising: first, if you are advertising to men exclusively; second, if you already have an established brand; and third, if it’s a no-name brand that has no value in itself. Say, for example, it’s a magazine ad for a company selling diet pills.
How much is too much sex in advertising?
Almost 50 percent of the respondents in the study were not only turned off by sexy ads but found that these types of ads represented the deterioration of social values.
What sort of sex works best in advertising?
We didn’t test that but again, soft sex may work with women.
What sort of products do best with sexy advertising? Obviously dentures and beer are targeting different audiences, but are there more subtle differences?
Certain products that link romance and sex work, like jewelry, lingerie and perfume. We didn’t test those because we wanted to isolate the effects of sex on ads. The categories we tested were cigarettes, credit cards, shoes, jeans, and whiskey, alcohol. Our test size was too small to differentiate between these five.
It’s all well and good for people to state all these things about sex in advertising, but how do you know they’re telling the truth? Couldn’t they just be posturing to make themselves look better and avoid embarrassment?
The likelihood is just as high in many other surveys, like in a political survey where respondents say they supported the winning candidate. But if you look at the numbers in this survey, they are so clean and so dramatic, that we feel we can come to the conclusions that we did.
What person, demographically, is most offended by sex in advertising? Least?
We didn’t test that, so this is just a hypothesis. I believe most would be women 40 and older, and the least would be young men in their 20s and 30s. And those who are more conservative politically and who are religious are certainly more offended than those who are liberals and atheists.
What’s the most outrageous sexy ad you’ve seen? What did people have the strongest reaction to?
Most people cited the Skechers shoe ad that we called dirty dancing. The ad depicts a couple dancing very closely, with the woman clad in a bikini displaying full cleavage and the man in a tight tank top. The shoes appear at the very bottom of the ad.
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