The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Betty, Briefs, and Buying

Sexual images don't make women buy. What does?

Whites
author
Oh, the unfortunate, under-stimulated female consumer! Ten years of studies have shown that men respond to sexual imagery by buying more. And so retailers’ outreach to men often takes an indirect approach, tickling their erotic fancies. Women, on the other hand, have to make do with dancing cookies and Mr. Charmin.

That's because the same ten years of research—the very same body of studies, in fact—have shown that women don’t ramp up their buying one jot in response to sexual imagery. Indeed, the paucity of data showing that sexual images rouse women to buy has pretty much brought that field of consumer research to a halt.

Which may be too bad.

In an in-press article at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a team from the Research Center for Marketing and Consumer Science at KU Leuven in Belgium presents evidence that sexual primes can work marketing wonders with women—if the primes are tactile. Seeing a picture of a man in briefs may not lead a woman to alter her economic decisions. But, experimentally at least, touching men's undergarments does.

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The Belgian team suggests that further studies are necessary to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of male consumers’ vs. female consumers’ “Pavlovian” responses to sexual stimuli. (The team goes out of its way to note that men salivate when looking at pictures of sports cars.) But a more urgent topic for research might be devising ways to deliver tactile primes to women given the obvious technical limitations of today’s screen, print, and radio advertising media. Door-to-door salesmen, anyone?

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Anouk Festjens, Sabrina Bruynee, and Siegfried Dewitte, "What a Feeling! Touching Sexually Laden Stimuli Makes Women Seek Rewards," Journal of Consumer Psychology, In press. Available on-line October 10, 2013.

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and humorist. Her most recent science book is Murders Most Foul: And the School Shooters in Our Midst (Vook, 2012) Her most recent humor book is Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake: And Other “Recipes” for the Intellectually Famished (Beck & Branch, 2013).

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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