Science has proven that sex doesn't actually sell in advertising
There's nothing more embarrassing than a gratuitously sexual commercial. You know the feeling, right? You're sat on the couch watching the TV with your parents and grandma, only for a Herculean hunk or scantily-clad model to start gyrating over the screen - all in the name of flogging some naff product. You'd think that our society would have grown out of this kind of mentality: but you'd be wrong. Instead, we have to be subjected to ridiculous, hypersexualised images of these faker-than-fake lust objects, just so Corporation Inc. can boost their sales by 1.5 per cent. And on the net? It's an even worse situation. All it takes is one wrong click on a dodgy site and suddenly you've found yourself bombarded by pop-up ads featuring some seriously NSFW content.
But I can understand where the compulsion to sex up ads comes from. It's a quick way to grab people's attention, to make them look up and take notice, and to make something look stylish and attractive by association. We've all collectively been told that sex sells so often that we believe the mantra without question. We accept totally that it's axiomatic. It feels like it's been true since the Mad Men days of marketing. But is it actually? Or have we been lied to all this time? New evidence seems to suggest so.
When researchers analysed more than 80 advertising studies, which were published over more than 30 years, they found that, while sexy advertising certainly makes us notice a product more, it doesn't actually lead to us that product more. Think about it: even if I see a Burger King ad where a waitress in a skimpy costume serves me fries and nuggets, it doesn't matter how attractive she is and it isn't going to change the fact that I personally like McDonald's better. Similarly, if I swung the other way, and saw some greased-up beefcake sipping Diet Coke on the TV, I'd probably focus more on his pecs and keep drinking regular Coke just the same. Don't believe me? Well, science has proven it!
The paper, which was entitled: "The effect of exposure to sexual appeals in advertisements on memory, attitude, and purchase intention: A meta-analytic review" was published earlier this month in the International Journal of Advertising. It discovered, via a meta-analysis of more than 78 peer-reviewed studies examining at the effects of sex appeal in ads, that not only were the study's participants unlikely to remember which brands actually featured in sexualised commercials, but they were actually more likely to harbour a negative attitude toward the brands after viewing it.
John Wirtz, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, and author of the study, stated: "We found that people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect doesn’t extend to the brands or products that are featured in the ads ... We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal. This assumption that sex sells – well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect."
Wirtz added: "The average number of participants in each individual study was about 225, but by using a meta-analysis, we could combine studies and conduct some analyses with more than 5,000 participants – in one analysis, with more than 11,000. This means that our results present a more accurate picture of what happens when someone sees an ad with a sexual appeal ... Certainly, the evidence indicates that the carryover effect to liking the ads doesn’t influence whether they’re going to make a purchase. If the ‘sexy ads’ had been effective, it’s unlikely the company or ad agency would have made such a drastic change. When product is moving, people don’t make changes."
Wirtz and co also noticed an extreme disparity in how opposite genders interpreted sexual commercials. Wirtz stated: "The strongest finding was probably the least surprising, which is that males, on average, like ads with sexual appeals, and females dislike them. However, we were surprised at how negative female attitudes were toward these ads." The research determined that a "sexual ad" was one that included models who were naked or half-naked, models who were touching or arranged in positions which suggested that sex was imminent, and the use of innuendo.
Despite this discovery, somehow I doubt very much that the advertising industry will change its ways. There are some brands out there which are so irrevocably associated with sex appeal and charisma now that if they were to adapt their marketing to be less salacious, it would probably have a profound impact on their publicity. It's at least somewhat heartening that people aren't completely brainwashed by erotic material. But when objectification is rampant, and sexuality already commodified, it's hard to see how things can improve without a big shake-up and plenty of prudish censorship.