When Sex Doesn't Sell

A new study finds that your average woman is not enticed by sexually charged ads—unless they're promoting an expensive product. Ew.

Sex sells, but only at a high price, according to a new study. Overtly sexual advertising can make women downright angry, but they tend to view a sexualized ad for a luxury product more positively than the same ad selling a discount item, marketing researchers from the University of Minnesota, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of British Columbia found.

Two experiments with 107 women and 105 men measured how upset, disgusted, unpleasantly surprised, or angry each participant felt after viewing a print advertisement for watches that showed either a pretty mountain landscape or a "couple sexily embracing." Some of the ads listed the watch as selling for $10, while others listed it for $1,250.

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Women rated the overtly sexual ad for the high-end product more positively, but were pissed off when the sexy couple was trying to sell them a $10 watch. Ladies who saw the nonsexual mountain ads didn't show any difference in attitude between the cheap and expensive products, so it wasn't just that they liked expensive watches more. By contrast, men's attitudes toward sexual advertising didn't vary depending on whether the watch warranted a down payment or was cheaper than the price of lunch.

The study revealed that "sexual ads promoting cheap products heightened feelings of being upset and angry among women," according to the paper. The researchers write that they focused on these feelings because they "arise often in response to perceptions of exploitation or offense." You know, like how your feel when advertisements remind you that your entire gender is constantly portrayed as a nice little collection of sexual objects.

The researchers attribute women's negative reactions to the eroticized ads to sexual economics, the idea that women pay a higher price for having sex, both physically and socially, than men. Because of this, heterosexual gals "want sex to be seen as highly valued and of great worth," they write. "Using sex to promote an expensive product does just that, by associating sex with high value." Gross. This sums up the thinking behind pretty much every engagement ring ad ever.

At least if you're going to go sexy, advertisers, you're probably better off selling diamonds than cheeseburgers. Or just stick to selling us picturesque mountain landscapes, please.

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2 Comments

  • Jon Garcia

    I wonder would the results differ if the sexual object in the ads that heterosexual women view are men instead of women? I get it that the majority of sexual ads use women as the subject, but clearly they only tested against those ads.

    How I interpreted the report is that sex doesn't sell cheap products when the gender of the target audience is being sexually objectified. If you're going to objectify a target gender, better make sure it's associated with something of value.

  • darb

    interesting. partly explains why godaddy ads are so unappealing, 7.99 domains + sexualized women = fail. still, i somehow doubt that photos of mountains are going to catch peoples eye as they flip through magazines..