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Sex doesn't sell, new study says

News, 27 June 2017
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CHICAGO: The age-old advertising doctrine “sex sells” may actually be false, according to new academic research.

According to a study by John Wirtz, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois, the inclusion of “sex appeal” in an ad’s creative did not make participants more likely to remember a brand name or purchase a product.

Consumers were actually more likely to view a brand negatively if sex appeal was used to market the product, Discover Magazine reported.

“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” Wirtz told the publication.

“This assumption that sex sells – well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”

Wirtz’s findings were based on a meta-analysis of 78 peer-reviewed studies investigating the effectiveness of sex appeals in ads. The study was recently published in the International Journal of Advertising.

The conclusions reflect a similar finding from 2015 by a team of Ohio State University researchers which investigated the persuasive effect that sex or violence in advertising creative had on consumer purchases.

The study hypothesized that consumers had been so inundated with these tactics that they had simply become desensitized.

At a time when diversity, representation of women in media and sexism in the advertising industry are major talking points, many brands are moving away from racy ads.

A couple of years ago, Ameritest, the copy-testing firm, showed an ad for QSR chain Carl's Jr. to its consumer panel to gauge their reaction. The ad featured an apparently naked model striding through a farmer's market before she was shown to be wearing a bikini as she ate the advertised product.

Advertising Age reported that, as a result of seeing the ad, 27% of the panel said they intended to visit a Carl's Jr. restaurant, or one of its sister chain Hardee's, in the next 30 days, well below the 43% which Ameritest suggested is the norm for a restaurant ad.

Just over half of the panel found the ad offensive (52%) or irritating and annoying (51%), and almost one third (32%) said they felt worse about Carl's Jr. after seeing the ad.

Carl’s Jr has since moved away from racy ads to get back to basics: its ingredients.

Data sourced from Discover, B&T; additional content by WARC staff

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