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When Sex Doesn't Sell

When Sex Doesn't Sell
Showing sexual images isn't always good for business. / Credit: Sex in red letters image via Shutterstock

While sex appeal in marketing campaigns generally turns women off, it can entice them to buy a product when used correctly, new research suggests.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science discovered that women's otherwise-negative attitudes about sexual imagery in ads can be softened when the images are paired with a product that connotes high worth.

"Women generally show spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images," the study's authors, including psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota, wrote in the research. "Sexual economics theory offers a reason why: The use of sexual imagery is inimical to women's vested interest in sex being portrayed as infrequent, special and rare."

Before starting their research, Vohs and her colleagues predicted that women's negative attitudes toward sexually explicit ads might soften if sex were depicted in a particular way. That is, the ads must portray sex as being of great value. The researchers predicted that sexual imagery would be less off-putting to women, for example, if paired with high-priced consumer goods, which can convey exclusivity and high value.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers had male and female participants view advertisements for women's watches. Some of the ads presented the watch alongside a sexually explicit image, whereas others pictured the watch against a majestic mountain range. Additionally, some of the ads priced the watch at $10 and others at $1,250.

The study's authors found that, overall, women who saw the sexual imagery with the cheap watch rated the ad more negatively in comparison to women who saw the sexual imagery paired with the pricey watch. Men, on the other hand, reported similar reactions to the sex-based ads, regardless of the advertised price.

Researchers believe these negative ratings from women seem to be driven by their negative emotions — feeling upset, disgusted, unpleasantly surprised or angry — in response to the ad that paired sexual imagery with the cheap watch.

A second study replicated the first experiment's results and ruled out the possibility that men's ratings didn't differ because they deemed the women's watches to be irrelevant. In the second study, men gave similar ratings to sexually explicit ads that included men's watches, regardless of how the watches were priced.

The study's results surprised Vohs and her co-authors, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Jaideep Sengupta and the University of British Columbia's Darren Dahl, despite corresponding with the predictions of sexual economics theory. The researchers were surprised that these effects occurred even when participants weren't actually in a purchasing scenario.

"Just a quick exposure to an ad was enough for theories of sexual economics to kick in," Vohs said. "This suggests that the process happens at a deep, intuitive level."

Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.