Weâ€™ve been told for years that sex sells â€” whether itâ€™s a scantily clad woman eating a burger or models in barely there lingerie walking a runway. But a new study finds thatâ€™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 â€” for better or for worse â€” that doesnâ€™t often translate into customers actually buying the product that the advertiser is aiming to sell.
â€œThe effectiveness of ads with sexual appeals really depends on what you are measuring,â€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. â€œWe found that people definitely remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect didnâ€™t extend to brands. So people could remember seeing an ad but not necessarily the brand or product featured in the ad.â€
The research also revealed that advertisers need to choose their sexiness wisely, depending on the product being promoted. â€œWe did find in a small subset of studies that there was a negative effect on purchase intention for products that donâ€™t â€˜fitâ€™ with peopleâ€™s expectations about the appropriateness of using a sexual appeal,â€ notes Wirtz. â€œAn example of a product that would fit would be lingerie or perfume, and a product that wouldnâ€™t fit would be something like a camera or a computer.â€
Sexy ads can also turn off certain viewers. The researchers looked at a smaller data set to compare how menÂ and womenÂ reacted to ads with sexual appeals and found that one group in particular wasnâ€™t a big fan. â€œOne of the most interesting findings was that females actively disliked ads with sexual appeals,â€ he says. â€œIn 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.â€
However, in some cases, sex does sell, says Wirtz. â€œEven though our study didnâ€™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,â€ he notes. â€œBut 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 asÂ â€˜evidenceâ€™ 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.â€
So what should advertising companies take away from this research? â€œI think advertisers should think carefully about what they want to achieve,â€ says Wirtz. â€œPeople 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 donâ€™t know anything about your product.â€
He continues: â€œBut I also recommend that advertisers think more broadly about whether their brands and products fit with peopleâ€™s expectations and that they recognize that, on average, female consumers really donâ€™t like ads with sexual appeals. Is a â€™sexy adâ€™ worth alienating half of the population?â€