Does Sex In Advertising Work?

Guest AuthorMarch 22, 200811934 min

This question has advocates on either side. Many people, especially professors and scholars, regard the selling power of sex in advertising as dubious at best. On the other hand, many consumers and professionals are very aware that sex is an effective selling tool.

Why might scholars negate the power of sex in advertising? For one, academic research fails to support much of a selling advantage for sex in advertising. But we must remember that experiments, some of which I’ve conducted, may not provide a realistic picture because researcher constructed ads are shown only once to lots of different people in an artificial environment. In the real world, professionally produced ads are seen many times primarily by the people that advertisers want to target.

The question is not, “Does it work?”, but “How does it work and in what situations?” As many people think, sex is used to grab a viewer’s attention. But sex influences people in additional ways. Consider a portion of a recent essay I contributed to Dr. Carol Pardun’s forthcoming book. It describes a few of the ways that sex can influence viewers.

Objection:  “Sex in advertising doesn’t work.”

This objection comes in several varieties. One is that sex is only used to grab attention. Some people refer to this usage as “borrowed interest.” In other words, advertisers attempt to take the interest generated by sexual information and use it to generate interest for their brands. In a related sense, detractors argue that while sex may stop traffic, it only produces—at best—a one-time sale that won’t build brand value needed to sustain long-term growth.

To some degree the critics are correct. Sexual information does grab attention. Sex evokes a hardwired emotional response that is linked to species survival. We can’t help that our eyes and ears are drawn to it because emotional information has a way of piercing our perceptual fields by rising above other environmental information trying to get our attention. So, yes, it does grab attention. And if sex is used merely to draw attention to a product that has no relevance to sex, then long-term success is not likely.

But consider the statement: “Sex is only used to grab attention.” These critics should update their thinking because research indicates that sex is used for more than attracting attention. I did some work with Jacque Lambiase and we discovered that 73%, almost three-quarters, of sexual ads in magazines contained a sex-related brand benefit. Common themes followed the “Buy this, get this” formula. If you buy our product: (1) You’ll be more sexually attractive, (2) have more or better sex, or (3) just feel sexier for your own sake. Recall the commercials recently used by Unilever to introduce Axe body spray. A young man sprays it on and attractive women (some are even physicians and mothers of girl-friends) find him irresistible. Credible? Doubtful. Tongue-in-cheek. Sure. I’m convinced that the agency handling Axe found through extensive research that these appeals resonated with members of the target audience (teens and young men 14-34 years old).

Again, almost three times as many ads use sex as a selling message—in most cases as the primary reason for buying and using the brand—than solely for attention-getting purposes. Axe, Tag, and Old Spice body sprays have produced a lot of revenue for their parent companies in a relatively short period of time (Axe was introduced in 2000), and all three are positioned as sexual-attractant enhancers.

In addition, there are plenty of cases in which sexual positioning strategies have resulted in long-term success. One of those is Calvin Klein. He has successfully imbued his brand’s identity with sexuality. For well over 30 years, sex in one form or another has been a mainstay in Calvin Klein fragrance, fashion, underwear, and accessories ads. The result? In 2005, products with Calvin’s name generated at least $1 billion in annual revenue.

The same is true for Victoria’s Secret. With its stable of supermodels clad only in panties and bras, the company has grown from three boutiques in San Francisco to the most successful and recognizable intimates brand in the United States, if not the world. Much of that success was achieved through an aggressive catalog effort and inventive promotional techniques such as Super Bowl commercials, streaming fashion shows, and prime-time fashion shows on network television. These promotional efforts rarely vary from Victoria’s Secret’s carefully crafted sexually-sophisticated image. Women who want to be associated with that image, either for their own pleasure or for that of someone else, willingly pay for it.

Many other companies have successfully used sex in advertising for sustained periods of time, and sex in advertising works in other ways beyond gaining attention and offering sex-related benefits. Suffice to say that as long at people desire to be attractive to others, and as long as people desire romance, intimacy, and love, and all the wonderful feelings they involve, advertisers can show how their products help meet those needs and desires. Whether we like it or not, products play a role in society’s intimacy equation.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Dr.Tom Reichert

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