Do You Think Sex Sells? Think Again.

The subject of sex in advertising comes up with clients and students all the time. Many believe that sex sells even though there are numerous cases when it does not. I hope this article will clear up this issue even though I know it probably won’t. Many will continue to think inside their own head and go on operating as if “sex sells” is some universal truth. Anyway, I am writing this for those that don’t want to waste their marketing dollars on the wrong strategy.

Why do so many believe that sex sells?

There are lots of reasons why people believe that sex sells. The following are some of the more common ones:

  1. Reptilian Brain. Sexual desire is built into the reptilian brain. Because people’s thoughts come from inside their own heads, they extrapolate their feelings to situations that do not apply.
  2. Heard repeatedly. Similar to many other misconceptions, people repeatedly hear that sex sells. As a result, they conclude that it must be correct.
  3. Gets attention. Whether it sells a product or not, many agree that sex will attract attention. The problem is that not all the attention is positive.
  4. Taboo. In many circles where sex is taboo, it generates even more attention. Google Trends reported statistics related to this subject.
  5. Used a lot in advertising. Because a lot of well-known companies use sex in advertising, many assume it must sell or advertisers wouldn’t use it. Many Super Bowl 2012 commercials reinforced this idea. If the assumers reviewed the data, they would not make these assumptions.
  6. It does sell products related to sex. Sex is effective as selling products related to sex. This is similar to the notion I raised in my post about celebrities. They are effective at selling products when they are considered expert users. If not expert users, they are less effective.

When is sex not effective in selling products?

For the many products that are not related to sex, using sex to sell them does not work. It can even backfire. A recent University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favourably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products. This study agrees with the data David Ogilvy accumulated over his long and storied career in advertising. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, he says that sex sells only if it is relevant to the subject being sold. Advertising Professor Jef I. Richards from the University of Texas says, “Sex sells, but only if you’re selling sex.”

What are some of the reasons it is not effective at selling?

There are many reasons sex does not sell when the product is unrelated. A few are listed below.

Some are offended. Gratuitous sex in advertising has caused a growing chorus of people (especially women) to be repulsed. Jack in the Box has been running commercials with sexual overtones over the past few years. A commercial for breakfast croissants has even been dubbed the Jack in the Box Viagra commercial. Here is what mum and blogger Christie Haskell said in her CafĂ© mum blog post, “… the latest ad has me confused and slightly disturbed — and I’m not the only one. The blogs are abuzz with befuddlement and laughter over the recent one for breakfast croissants.” The following is a sample of the comments at the end of her post in 2010 on the breakfast croissants.

  • jsnzmom on Dec 6, 2010 at 4:24 PM Ummmm….EWWWWWW. There’s no connection whatsoever (at least in my world) between breakfast croissants and an erection that lasts more than 4 hours. Not funny or appetizing in the very least.
  • gentlehands on Dec 6, 2010 at 4:34 PM THAT is so horrible. I’m actually shocked and I don’t think I want to eat there as long as that is their idea of a joke.
  • tazdvl on Dec 6, 2010 at 7:29 PM No reason for that to be in the commercial.

The latest Jack In The Box commercial similarly has people scratching their heads because of sexual overtones.

Gimmick. Many believe using sex to sell a product that is unrelated to sex is a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product.

Distracts attention from product shortcomings. Others believe that the product must not have enough capabilities for the company to employ sex rather than product features and benefits to sell the product.

People forget the product. Those that are attracted to the ad for reasons unrelated to the product benefits tend to remember what attracted them rather than the product.

With all due respect to Adriana Lima

As independent research studies show, sex sells only when the product being sold is related to sex. Otherwise, companies should invest their money in communicating the unique benefits of their products in their advertising. In all cases, organisations should develop marketing information systems to accurately measure what advertising elements trigger sales. That is the only way to know for sure what works and what doesn’t.

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