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Why Sex Sells… More Than Ever

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Magazine ads featuring sex are on the rise, with the exception of two not-too-sexy industries.

  • Advertisers use sexual imagery to attract sales of products as diverse as perfume and cheeseburgers.
  • While using sexy ads might seem like a risky choice, studies show that it works.
  • Sex sells because it immediately grabs attention.
  • This article is for business owners and marketers considering various approaches to advertising that might catch the attention of their target audience.

Sex still sells: A study from the University of Georgia (UGA) looked at sexual ads that have appeared in magazines over the last 30 years and found that the numbers are going up. 

Why is sex important in sales?

Sex attracts attention. Though it's often a taboo subject, companies that use sex in their marketing often create effective and memorable campaigns. Brands such as Victoria's Secret and GoDaddy have created ads that might not even talk about the product but simply gain viewers' attention. In sales, gaining the attention of clients and potential buyers is often half the battle.

"Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective," said Tom Reichert, head of the UGA Department of Advertising and Public Relations and one of the study's researchers. "Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hardwired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed."

People also succumb to the "buy this, get this" imagery in ads, he said. "Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy. But brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguably, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret are not much different than Hanes or Vassarette, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as 'sexy,' and some customers want that."

The researchers looked at 3,232 full-page ads published in 1983, 1993, and 2003 in the popular magazines Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Esquire, Playboy, Newsweek, and Time. They found sexual imagery in 20% of the ads overall. The use of sex to sell everything from alcohol to banking services increased over the years.

The ads were categorized based on the models' clothing (or lack thereof) and physical contact between models.

"Our findings show that the increase in visual sexual imagery over the three decades of analysis is attributable to products already featuring sexual content in ads, not necessarily widespread adoption by other product categories," Reichert said. "Specifically, alcohol, entertainment and beauty ads are responsible for much of the increase."

The study showed that sex is used primarily to sell impulse purchases. "Sex is not as effective when selling high-risk, informational products such as banking services, appliances and utility trucks," Reichert said.

Much of the growth was seen in alcohol, entertainment and beauty advertising. Out of 18 product categories, the ones that most often used sexual imagery in advertising were health and hygiene (38%), beauty (36%), drugs and medicine (29%), clothing (27%), travel (23%), and entertainment (21%).

Most of these industries are ones where sexual content is not out of place. For example, Axe uses sexually suggestive content to promote their body wash, because it isn't out of the ordinary to see exposed skin in an ad for a hygienic project.

"In almost every study I've seen, sexual content gives a purchase advantage in such instances," Reichert said.

Where doesn't sex sell?

While many industries have dabbled in sexually suggestive advertisements at some point, there are two primary examples of industries that have not. Advertisers that did not use sex in their ads included charitable organizations and computer companies.

Charities and nonprofits focus on giving back to the community and enhancing the lives of others. Sexual imagery within their marketing materials would send the wrong message to those they are soliciting donations from. If they depicted a scantily clad man or woman, their audience would likely not take them seriously and there would be backlash. Charitable organizations that deal with issues involving children, disease or social injustice don't want any sexual connotations associated with them.

The other industry that rarely uses sex in advertisements is computer and software companies. Like charitable organizations, these companies want to present themselves as serious and professional. They want consumers to know that their product is effective and reliable, and any sexual imagery could undermine that point. Unlike with beer advertisements, which show consumers having a good time and relaxing, or hygienic products, which naturally feature some exposed skin, there is no easy way to place sexual imagery in an ad for a computer company.

Key takeawayKey takeaway: Nonprofits and computer companies are the main industries that don't use sex in their advertisements.

What types of companies use sex in their advertisements?

Many kinds of companies use sex in their advertisements. Some might use sexual imagery to display a product like lingerie or underwear; others might use it to discuss a medical product like prescription medication or condoms. But some companies use sex solely to gain viewers' attention. For example, an advertisement for Carl's Jr. created controversy when it featured Kate Upton seductively eating a cheeseburger. While many people were discussing how the ad had nothing to do with the quality of the cheeseburger, this approach gained quite a bit of publicity.

How is sex used in advertising?

Advertisers use a variety of methods to incorporate sex. For instance, Old Spice and Axe supposedly make men more desirable, according to their commercials. In perfume ads, only the most attractive women use the perfume, insinuating that if you use that type of perfume, you will also be beautiful. Sex is used to sell magazines with only the "sexiest men alive" being featured. Sports Illustrated sells a yearly subscription to many users who want it only for the swimsuit edition.

Did you KnowDid you know? Women are most often used to sell products pitching sex. In ads sampled from 2003, 92% of beauty ads featured female models. Just under half of the ads did not contain models.

With the exception of entertainment advertising, women overwhelmingly occupy the pages of sex-selling advertisements. Of the 38% of provocative health and hygiene advertisements that featured models, 31% were female and 7% were male.

"Perhaps more important, this analysis shows that the proportion for alcohol ads in 2003 increased to about one sexual ad for every three ads (37%)," Reichert said.

He added that this upward trend in erotic ads is a reflection of society.

"It takes more explicitness to grab our attention and arouse us than before. In the early 1900s, exposed arms and ankles of female models generated the same level of arousal as partially nude models do today. We can see during our lifetimes the changes in sexually explicit content on television, movies, books and other forms of media beyond just advertising."

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. Leonard Reid, professor of advertising at the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Courtney Carpenter Childers, assistant professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are co-authors of the study.

How is sex in marketing currently being used?

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many people may logically assume that sex is being used less in modern advertisements. However, that assumption is false. And nowhere is sexual content more prevalent than on social media.

A lot of suggestive content is posted on social media sites such as Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Many marketing campaigns that use celebrity and social media influencers have sexual undertones in their images. Influencers post pictures of themselves in revealing poses to get more engagement on their sponsored content. These posts are not technically pornographic; however, they do use suggestive content to get more engagement and therefore increase sales.

Some sites, such as Facebook, have strict advertising policies with zero tolerance for sexual content. Google Ads also has a strict adult content policy that disallows the use of sexuality in promoted advertisements. However, while users can report any content they find too sexually explicit, these sites typically let merely suggestive content slide.

Image Credit: Kiuikson / Getty Images
Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon
business.com Member
Nicole Fallon has written hundreds of B2B-focused articles on topics such as marketing, business technology, leadership, and HR/organizational management. In addition to covering small business trends and software reviews, Nicole runs a digital marketing agency, where she and her team create high-quality content for a wide range of B2B and B2C brands.