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Does Sex Still Sell? What Marketers Should Know

Sandra Mardenfeld
Sandra Mardenfeld

Magazine ads featuring sex often get attention, but the strategy won't work with all brands and industries.

  • Advertisers often use sexual imagery to attract attention to products such as perfume, clothing and food.
  • While running sexy ads might seem like a risky choice, the strategy sometimes works.
  • Using sex to market a product isn’t appropriate for all brands or demographics; sexual imagery can hurt a product’s appeal if not used appropriately.
  • This article is for business owners and marketers who are considering different approaches to advertising.

Does sex sell? Research shows that sex certainly gets noticed. 

A study from the University of Georgia (UGA), for example, looked at sexually suggestive ads that appeared in magazines over a 30-year period and found that such marketing methods proved influential. However, other research, such as a 2013 paper published in the International Journal of Advertising, showed that although sex provokes, it may not always sell.  

We’ll explore how sex is used in advertising, as well as what makes the strategy work and what makes it backfire.  

Why is sex influential in sales?

There’s no denying that sex attracts attention. One of the earliest ads to use nudity as a marketing technique came from a company called Pearl Tobacco. In 1871, the brand included a woman’s naked torso on its packaging. The saucy imagery created a buzz, and other companies started embracing sexual imagery as a sales tactic. 

Here are a couple of reasons why sex is influential in sales:

1. Sex in marketing grabs attention. 

Though sex is often a taboo subject, companies that use it in marketing often create effective and memorable campaigns. Brands such as Victoria’s Secret and GoDaddy have created ads that might not even mention their products but certainly grab viewers’ attention. In sales, getting the clients’ and potential buyers’ attention is often half the battle.

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

2. Sex in marketing creates a brand impression. 

People also succumb to the “buy this, get this” imagery in ads, Reichert said, helping to create a brand’s image. “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.”

What the UGA study found

The UGA study demonstrated the growth of sexual imagery in advertising over three decades. 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, but only specific industries truly utilized sexual imagery in advertising. 

The ads were categorized based on the models’ clothing (or lack thereof) and physical contact between models. “Our findings [showed] 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 [were] responsible for much of the increase.”

In the three decades the study examined, 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%). In most of these industries, sexual content isn’t out of place. For example, Axe uses sexually suggestive content to promote its body wash, but it’s not out of the ordinary to see exposed skin in an ad for a hygienic project.

When doesn’t sex sell?

Sometimes, sex garners attention without producing any brand extension or sales results. 

“Sex is not as effective when selling high-risk, informational products such as banking services, appliances and utility trucks,” Reichert said. Marketing for such items is based on facts, testimonials and customer service. Using sex to sell where it doesn’t fit won’t help move product.

The idea that sex doesn’t always sell is supported by the results of an International Journal of Advertising study, which found that participants might remember sexy ads, but they didn’t necessarily recall what those ads were selling. 

“We found that people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect doesn’t extend to the brands or products that are featured in the ads,” said John Wirtz, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois and the study’s lead author.

Wirtz and his co-authors used meta-analysis to look at 78 peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of sexual advertising campaigns. The research offered a new take on sexy messaging: Sexy ads might be memorable, but they often fail to sell the products or services they’re promoting. 

Where doesn’t sex sell? 

For some organizations, sex clearly isn’t an appropriate or effective advertising technique.

  • Charities and nonprofits focus on giving back to the community and enhancing others’ lives. Sexual imagery within their marketing materials would send the wrong message to potential donors. If a charity’s ad depicted sexual imagery, its audience would likely discount the organization, and there would be backlash. Charitable organizations that deal with issues involving children, disease, social injustice and other serious issues don’t want any sexual connotations. [Related article: Small Business Guide to Charitable Giving and Tax Deductions]
  • Computer and tech companies rarely use sex in advertising. Like charitable organizations, these companies want to present themselves seriously and professionally. They want consumers to know that their products are effective and reliable, and sexual imagery could undermine that. Unlike beer advertisements, which show consumers having a good time and relaxing, or hygienic products, which naturally feature some exposed skin, there is no appropriate way to place sexual imagery in an ad for a computer company. Even GoDaddy, once known for suggestive ads featuring a sexy array of women, including former NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, changed its image in 2012 to create a more professional brand identity, focusing on the services it provided to entrepreneurs.

TipTip: If your business wants to increase sales and conversions, use the best CRM software to track every interaction with potential customers and meet their needs.

What types of companies use sex in their advertisements?

Many companies use sex in their advertisements to varying degrees of success. Sometimes, there are obvious uses for sexual imagery, such as when a company sells lingerie or underwear. Other times, a company may incorporate sexual imagery in ads selling condoms or medications that enhance the sexual experience.

However, some companies use sex solely to gain viewers’ attention. For example, the hamburger chain Carl’s Jr. famously had a long-running advertising campaign featuring attractive models and actresses – including Kate Upton, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian – seductively eating burgers. While many people discussed how the ad had nothing to do with the restaurant’s burger quality, this approach gained quite a bit of publicity for the chain.

How is sex used in advertising?

Advertisers incorporate sex in a couple of ways: 

  • Sexual imagery sends a message. Old Spice and Axe supposedly make men more desirable, according to their commercials. In perfume ads, only the most attractive women use the fragrance, insinuating that you’ll also be beautiful and special if you use that perfume. 
  • Sex sells magazines. Sex is also used to sell magazines. Consider People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” issue and Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. 

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 when brands incorporate social media marketing.

Suggestive content is often posted in advertisements on social media sites such as Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Many marketing campaigns that use celebrities and social media influencers incorporate images with sexual undertones. Influencers and brand ambassadors may post images with provocative poses or suggestive content to get more engagement on sponsored content. 

It’s important to note that ads or marketing campaigns on social media may include sexual undertones or provocative poses, but they rarely cross the line into explicit content. Professionals on these social sites are careful not to post inappropriate content, as they don’t want to risk having their accounts reported or suspended. While users can report any content they find too sexually explicit, these sites typically often let suggestive content slide.

Did you know?Did you know?: Some sites, such as Facebook, have strict advertising policies with zero tolerance for inappropriate sexual content. Google Ads also has a strict adult content policy that disallows the use of sexuality in promoted advertisements.

Is sexy advertising suitable for your business?

While many brands and products use sexy advertising, you should consider the following factors before adding the strategy to your marketing campaign. 

  • Branding: You should always consider your brand reputation before beginning any advertising campaign. Consider if the short-term attention generated will be worth the possibility of damaging the brand in the long run if complaints arise.
  • Target audience: Sex can sell, but you must understand your demographics before using the method in marketing campaigns. For instance, Gen Z (born after 1996) looks at brands differently from other audiences. Their values skew to female empowerment, body positivity and personal expression. If that is your target customer, the wrong advertising will alienate them. Likewise, many women don’t want to see sexualized images in advertising, the International Journal of Advertising study found. “The strongest finding was probably the least surprising, which is that males, on average, like ads with sexual appeals, and females dislike them,” Wirtz said. “… We were surprised at how negative female attitudes were toward these ads.”
  • Industry: As mentioned earlier, altruistic organizations such as charities and nonprofits won’t benefit from saucy promotions. After all, sensual innuendo and sexy photographs go against their general message. The technique will only open the organizations to criticism and undercut their missions.
  • Product or service: Not all brands work well with sexualized advertising. The UGA study, in fact, showed that sex is used primarily to sell impulse purchases. As such, this technique may be effective for products and services such as alcohol, entertainment, clothing and beauty. 

Nicole Fallon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: Kiuikson / Getty Images
Sandra Mardenfeld
Sandra Mardenfeld
Sandra Mardenfeld is a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, marketing consultant and educator based in Long Island, New York. She has worked as the managing editor for several national magazines, and as an editor/writer on many websites. She has written for several business publications, including Entrepreneur.com, Retail Ad World, American Bookseller, and Construction Equipment Guide.