Sex doesn’t sell, study finds

“Sex sells” – it’s an advertising phrase that’s well known and widely accepted, and a lot of the ads we’re presented with appear to support the idea. But this conventional wisdom is more complex than it seems.

According to a major study, sex gets attention but doesn’t necessarily sell.

The research analyzed almost 80 advertising studies from a span of more than three decades.

“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,” said University of Illinois advertising professor John Wirtz, the lead author of the research.

Participants in the 78 peer-reviewed studies examined were no more likely to remember brands that used sex to sell products. They were also no more motivated to purchase the relevant products.

In fact, there was a high probability that participants would have a negative attitude towards such ads.

“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” Wirtz said. “This assumption that sex sells – well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”

The research, published in the International Journal of Advertising, also involved Johnny V. Sparks, a professor of journalism at Ball State University, and Thais M. Zimbres, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis.

A big difference between men and women

Despite the surprising findings, some things we think we know about the world are simple truths – and sexual content appealing to men more than women is one of them.

“The strongest finding was probably the least surprising, which is that males, on average, like ads with sexual appeals, and females dislike them,” Wirtz said. “However, we were surprised at how negative female attitudes were toward these ads.”

The authors pointed out that analysis of the collated studies gave a very large sample and therefore highly reliable results.

The findings are a reminder for advertisers of a problem which applies to ads with and without sexual content. That making an ad memorable does not necessarily make people want to buy the product more.

Sometimes, a really good ad can make viewers remember the ad more than the product it is selling, and sometimes, even if they remember the product, the fact that its ad was funny, poignant or sexy doesn’t necessarily make them want to buy.

As to whether advertisers will continue to rely on sexual content, the University of Illinois News Bureau, which carried the story, pointed to the example of a national restaurant chain who for a long time advertised its food using half-dressed models in suggestive poses. The chain made a major departure from that in a commercial made for the most recent Super Bowl.

“If the ‘sexy ads’ had been effective, it’s unlikely the company or ad agency would have made such a drastic change,” he said. “When a product is moving, people don’t make changes.”


Image credit: Unsplash/Throng Vo