Sex Doesn’t Sell

SEX SELLS is a phrase most of us have heard at one point or another, especially in the advertising industry. For a long time it’s been used to justify having bikini-clad women and muscular men taking their shirts off to sell products ranging from soft drinks to washing powder to crisps. However a study has shown that this might not only fail to sell products, but may also be detrimental to the brand and the product shown.

The in-depth study carried out by the University of Illinois across 1969-2017, with over 17,000 participants, looked back at 78 peer reviewed studies on consumer attitudes towards, and memories of, ads as well as their intention to buy the product advertised. They made some interesting findings in relation to sexualised ads – in particular they found that although consumers were more likely to remember the ads that used sexual appeal to sell, they did not in fact remember the brand connected to the ad.

The sexualised ads were also no more likely to convince the consumer to buy their product than ads that weren’t sexualised. In general, the ads caused the participants to have negative attitudes towards the brand featured in the ad. Although the researchers noted that female participants were more likely to have these negative feelings than the male participants.

Advertisers are adapting to this attitude to sexualised ads, and in recent years have started to tone down their ads. A good example is to look at how the Superbowl ads have changed throughout the years. More and more advertisers are moving away from using sex to sell and are focusing on making enjoyable ads with content that doesn’t objectify either gender. And in a similar vein, a recent decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK, has seen a crackdown on sexist ads, such as women being left alone to do house work while the family are off enjoying themselves. In general, the industry is slowly taking note of the societal changes and moving to keep pace with them.

This piece of research highlighted that the old adage; “sex sells” is in fact a falsehood and originated from a past when the world was a more male-dominated place. Now that equality movements have begun to emerge the old misogynistic attitude is slowly fading, hopefully for good. We have many examples of great ads that don’t have a hint of sexualisation; for example, Guinness Surfer now slightly aged but still relevant is still called one of the best ads of all time and more recently, Apple’s Don’t Blink ad, a 107 second cut down of the iPhone 7 launch.

I think this compounds an idea that advertisers should be aware of moving forward; sex doesn’t sell, good ads do.