Sex sells – but only to men, study finds

Sex sells – but only to men, not women, according to a study from The Carlson School which advises marketers targeting women to only to use sexual imagery in the context of a relationship in their ads. 


The study by marketing professors Darren W. Dahl, Jaideep Sengupta and Kathleen D. Vohs consisted of four experiments examining the differences between men and women’s attitudes towards the gratuitous use of sex in advertising.

They showed participants four different wristwatch ads, some with sexual imagery, some set at a mountain range. Some ads priced the watch at $10 (£6.12) and others $1,250 (£764.43).

Women who saw the ad combining the $10 watch and sexual imagery reported anger, disgust and upset on seeing the spot but their reactions were less severe on seeing the expensive item. Men’s reactions did not change regardless of the price.

The negative reactions from women in the study when exposed to sexual ads could explain why ads containing sexual imagery for relatively cheap products – such as Richmond Ham – racked up more complaints than a spot like Keira Knightley’s Chanel ad.

The experiments found women’s spontaneous dislike of sexual ads softened when the ad could be interpreted in terms of commitment-related resources being offered by men to women, while men’s positive attitudes towards sexual ads were “relatively unaffected” by the inclusion of relationship commitment cues.

In order to appeal to women marketers using sexual images in their ads should, therefore, display sex in the broader context of a committed relationship, rather than promoting recreational sex, according to the authors of the study. They linked the findings back to the sexual economics psychological theory, which infers men see sex as an end in itself, while women link sex to a relationship commitment.

The ad could, for example, position the product itself as a signal of commitment – such as a romantic gift from a man to a women (although there was no improvement in attitude if the gift was offered by a woman to a man) – or show the idea of intimacy or a relationship prior to any sexual image being shown.

Men’s attitudes towards explicit depictions of sex in advertising will not improve by associating the sexual image in the ad with a relationship commitment, however. Indeed, men in the experiment reacted negatively to sexually explicit ads that reminded them they may at times need to spend money in pursuit of sex.

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