Does sex sell?  Ten years ago Calvin Klein jeans launched a rather controversial and highly sexual advertising campaign which doubled their revenue.  So is it a good idea to use sex (or violence) to improve sales?

Does it only work for men? Or on some products rather than others? And how do you measure the effect: memory for the ad, the brand or whether they actually buy the product?

Different countries have different rules about advertising on television, bill-boards and magazines. Some are seemingly lax and not very concerned with nudity or rather unsubtle hints about intercourse. The whole issue of sex and violence on television and its potential effect on young people easily spills over from programmes to advertising.

There are various ways in which one can “sex-up” a product.  Obviously one can use sexy ads.  They may use highly attractive, scantily clad actors or subtle innuendo, or not-so-subtle culturally understood images.  Most of us remember speeding steam trains rushing into tunnels; the girl biting the chocolate flake ad and the music of Je T’aime, etc.

Another way is to embed the advertisement in a sexy programme.  There are many post-nine o’clock watershed programmes that deal with all aspects of sex….but not always sexily. 

One research question do you get more “bang-for-your-buck” if you put a sexy ad in a sexy programme or an unsexy programme? There is now a experimental literature on this topic starting with the important work of Brad Bushman (Psychological Science, vol 16) and including some of my modest contributions (Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol 27)

The idea of commercial advertising is pretty simple:  people see, listen to or read an advertisement.  They recall the brand, its strap-line and the product.  They later recognise the products in shops, on the web or elsewhere and buy it.  They trust products more that have been advertised.  Good ads lead to great sales.

But how to get the ad noticed and remembered in the first place.  Psychologists have known for half a century that memory for anything is dependent on how deeply it is “processed”.  People have to notice the ad, pay attention to it, understand the central message of it and integrate it into their personal “knowledge bank and system”….  The more the advertisement catches your attention and interest the more you are likely to devote energy and capacity to processing it and the stronger the memory trace will be.

Processing goes through various stages: notice the ad; pay attention to the pictures, the words and the benefits; understand and comprehend that message and then integrate it into your knowledge bank, commercial schema, etc.

So ad agencies use drama, humour, sex and violence to make the ads more attention grabbing, interesting and memorable.  They try to elicit emotions and mood states that enhance memory, although recall may depend on that mood state being experienced again when the shopper is buying.

People seem to like humour, some like sex, fewer like violence.  But the job is selling products.  Once the ad is made the question is where and when to show it.  Various factors effect this decision, including costs and (for television) viewing figures.

Assume you have choice.  You are marketing a food product.  And you have made an outrageous, near-to-the-line sexy ad.  Do you slot it in a food programme ad-break, of which there are many, or in a car programme or a gardening programme?  Assume the same cost, the same viewers, the same readership.  In other words, should you maximize programme – advertisement congruity or incongruity?

Brad Bushman’s studies looked at whether putting an advertisement in a violent or sexual programme improves or impairs memory for it.  Three groups watched either a violent, sexually explicit or neutral TV programme that contained nine standard advertisements.  Afterwards they were asked to recall the brands and identify them from pictures of similar brands on supermarket shelves.  The next day they were each phoned and again asked to recall the brands.  The studies showed that those watching the neutral programme remembered most.  Irrespective of their sex or age or how much they liked the programme the sex and violent programmes seemed to impair memory for the advertised products.

A British study and one run in France came to much the same conclusion

It may be that people attend more closely to, and get more involved in sex and violence programmes, so they inevitably have less attentive capacity for other stimuli like the ads.  Also it is believed that sex and aggression in the films stimulate sexual and aggressive thoughts which further limit interest in and attention paid to the ads.

But sexing up an ad and putting it in a non sexy programme might just work? You can get a strong Von Restorff effect: of the ad “standing out like a sore thumb”. But, paradoxically that effect is consistently reduced every time the ad is shown. So here the paradox: the more you see a sexy ad, the less the effect.

So the moral lobby of parents, priests and pundits might not stem the flow of sex and violence on the television, but the advertising lobby which effectively subsidises and therefore pays for the programmes certainly will if these results are to be believed. Finding a Sexy programme for ones ads seems a waste of time. And so is repeating a new and very ad.

So could one conclude that Sex Doesn’t Sell

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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