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Turns Out, Sex Doesn’t Actually Sell, Says Study

We’ve been told for years that sex sells — whether it’s a scantily clad woman eating a burger or models in barely there lingerie walking a runway. But a new study finds that’s not necessarily the case.

Researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed nearly 80 advertising studies published over the past 30 years and found that while people have no problem remembering a particularly racy ad — for better or for worse — that doesn’t often translate into customers actually buying the product that the advertiser is aiming to sell.

“The effectiveness of ads with sexual appeals really depends on what you are measuring,”John G. Wirtz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells Yahoo Style. “We found that people definitely remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect didn’t extend to brands. So people could remember seeing an ad but not necessarily the brand or product featured in the ad.”

The research also revealed that advertisers need to choose their sexiness wisely, depending on the product being promoted. “We did find in a small subset of studies that there was a negative effect on purchase intention for products that don’t ‘fit’ with people’s expectations about the appropriateness of using a sexual appeal,” notes Wirtz. “An example of a product that would fit would be lingerie or perfume, and a product that wouldn’t fit would be something like a camera or a computer.”

Sexy ads can also turn off certain viewers. The researchers looked at a smaller data set to compare how men and women reacted to ads with sexual appeals and found that one group in particular wasn’t a big fan. “One of the most interesting findings was that females actively disliked ads with sexual appeals,” he says. “In fact, they disliked the ads more than the males liked them. Otherwise, there was no difference in how females and males responded to the ads.”

However, in some cases, sex does sell, says Wirtz. “Even though our study didn’t look at individual brands or products, our results suggest that, at least for some products targeting specific demographics, there is a benefit to having a sexual appeal,” he notes. “But I think just as importantly, using sexual appeals has become a default for some advertisers. And sexual appeals can create a lot of media attention and online buzz, which can be used as ‘evidence’ that the ad is working. Of course, our research indicates that the positive front-end effects on memory do not carry over to purchase intention.”

So what should advertising companies take away from this research? “I think advertisers should think carefully about what they want to achieve,” says Wirtz. “People remember ads with sexual appeals. That type of ad can create media attention and online buzz. These things can be valuable when a product is new and consumers don’t know anything about your product.”

He continues: “But I also recommend that advertisers think more broadly about whether their brands and products fit with people’s expectations and that they recognize that, on average, female consumers really don’t like ads with sexual appeals. Is a ’sexy ad’ worth alienating half of the population?”

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