Quilted Science

Patchwork thoughts on psychology, neuroscience, and human behavior.

Care for Some Sexy Toilet Paper? - Sex in Advertising

Care for Some Sexy Toilet Paper? - Sex in Advertising

Renova adSex supposedly sells, and no matter what commercial product you are looking for, there is no shortage of marketing campaigns aiming to convince you of the special sex appeal that comes with driving a particular brand of automobile, the "pleasure" of housekeeping you may enjoy from using a particular brand of vacuum, and the erotic experience associated with wiping your behind with a particular brand of toilet paper...apparently there is no true limit to the type of commercial product that can be tied to some unrelated sexual image.

From a psychological perspective it is clear that explicit sexual imagery does a great job at attracting our attention, but it has also been shown in multiple studies that most people, if they make the effort to think about it more carefully, respond negatively to advertising in which the sexual image has little relevance to the advertised product and generally consider overly gratuitous use of sexual imagery in advertising unethical. Then again, it is also clear that most of us don't usually pay a lot of attention to advertising content, and that our spontaneous, non-controlled reactions to sex-based advertising can be very different to our deliberate, more carefully considered responses. For example, there exists experimental evidence that under cognitive load (i.e. when people are actively thinking about something else - for example, they may be trying to memorize a 10 digit number - people do not across the board dislike sexual ads. Here, the scientific evidence up to date, suggests that men tend to prefer sexually explicit ads, while women usually respond negatively to explicitly sexual ad content.

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One popular interpretation of this result (and results from related experiments) is that men and women possess different underlying attitudes and beliefs about sex, and reasons for having sex. While these differences in attitudes and beliefs are sometimes explained in terms of biological evolution, cultural socialization or the likely combination of both, it has been a commonly stated conclusion that

"Men tend to adopt a relatively recreational orientation [to sexuality], an approach that emphasizes physical gratification and views sex as an end in itself.

and

"women tend to adopt a relationship-based orientation to sexuality, an approach that emphasizes the importance of intimacy and commitment in a sexual relationship"

In order to investigate the relevance of this hypothesis in the domain of advertisement and people's responses to sexually explicit advertising content, University of Minnesota Psychologist and marketing professor Kathleen Voohs, recently designed a number of smart experiments that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The main experiment was designed to measure people's response to sexually explicit ads when these ads were linked to intimacy and commitment, as compared to sexually explicit ads without any such relational connotation. In particular, participants were presented with a sexually explicit advertisement for a watch and asked to rate this ad. In one experimental condition, the watch within the sexually explicit ad was depicted with a red ribbon, and presented as a gift from the man to the women, in the other condition the ad was devoid of any such indication of intimacy or commitment that is associated with gift giving. In a randomized trial, in which all participants simultaneously memorized a 10 digit number while viewing the advertisements (to induce "cognitive load" and simulate the preoccupation with other things, that usually characterizes the way we engage with advertisement in real life), men showed no preference between the two sexually explicit images. Women, in contrast seemed to respond negatively to the sexual ad which was devoid of relationship connotations.

This result was investigated further by a series of three additional experiments, in which commitment and intimacy were attached to non-sexual ads, or presented as acts from the woman to the man (rather than from the man to the woman), or in which participants were subliminally primed with thoughts of intimacy and commitment, rather than having these concepts present in the actual ads.

The results all seem to confirm the previous hypothesis that commitment and intimacy are important qualifiers of women's response to sexuality. In particular, women respond negatively to sexually explicit advertising in which sexuality is presented without implications of commitment and intimacy, but women respond favorably to ads in which men (as opposed to women) appear to be signaling intimacy and commitment.

Men on the other hand, seem rather unaffected by accompanying messages of commitment, and generally favor all sexually laden ads. Although, one small exception exists: Men seem turned off (so to speak) by sexually explicit ads in which a man signals commitment and intimacy involving a very costly investment. But then again, this is only the case if for very large financial investments, and does not appear to hold in the case of large emotional investments.

For toilet paper manufacturers this means: Make your ad sexy, but don't forget to place a red ribbon and a small price tag around the toilet roll...sort of.

Journal of Consumer Research

 

Main Reference:

Dahl, Darren. (2009-08) Sex in Advertising: Gender Differences and the Role of Relationship Commitment. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(3), 232-231. DOI: 10.1086/597158

Daniel R. Hawes is a social psychologist stuck in an applied economist's body.

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