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  • Can sexy ads really arouse our interest in brands?
  • Can sexy ads really arouse our interest in brands?
    Álvaro Nistal, Creative Commons (2009) ©

Does sex still sell?

Overflowing champagne bottles, foamy shower scenes, models in pillow fights. The sexy tactics used to flog products are well established. Yet with an increasingly feminist culture and studies showing that such imagery can impair our ability to remember what’s being advertised, does sex still sell?

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Overflowing champagne bottles, foamy shower scenes, underwear models in pillow fights. We’re all familiar with the sexy tactics deployed to turn us on to brands because it’s well-established that ‘sex sells’.

Yet a study published in 2015 found that sex takes up so much of our ‘limited attentional capacity’ that it impairs our ability to remember what’s being advertised. Not only does sex “not help” when it comes to selling stuff, it can have a detrimental effect on an advert’s overall effectiveness. [1][2]

Combine this with the outrage against Protein World’s ad campaign, an increasingly feminist culture, and the demise of lads’ mags and you could infer that sex as a device to sell is outmoded. Except it’s not that straightforward.


One-track minds
Brad Bushman, professor of communications and psychology at Ohio State University, is “interested in challenging myths.” [2] In 2014, he and colleague Robert Lull conducted 53 experiments on 8,489 participants to test out whether ‘sex sells’. They looked into “the effects of sexual media, violent media, sexual ads and violent ads on the outcomes of brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions.” [1]

Their findings showed that “brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favourably than brands advertised using non-sexual ads.” And, “as intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes and buying intentions decreased.” [1] Bushman and Lull state that the ‘evolution and emotional arousal theoretical framework’ accounts for these results. This theory proposes that we’re hard-wired to attend to sexual cues for reproductive purposes, and violent cues to stay alive. Because these cues consume a lot of our cognitive resources, our brains have a tough time processing anything else in a meaningful way. “In the case of a sexual advertisement,” explains Bushman, “it narrows our attention directly on to the sex, and the brand is on the periphery.” [2]

However, there is an exception. When ad content and media content were congruent (i.e. a sexually explicit ad was aired during a sexually explicit TV show), people “were more likely to remember the ads and had a stronger intention to buy the product.” [3] Bushman suspects this is due to the ‘priming effect’. “Research has shown that if you see the word ‘doctor’, you have a faster reaction to the word ‘nurse’, for example,” he says. “Sex activates other sexual concepts in our memory, so if you see a programme containing sex then an ad containing sex, those concepts are more accessible.” [2]

Agent Provocateur’s ads take a full throttle approach to ‘sex sells’
L'Agent by Agent Provocateur (2014) ©

Sex that sells
Bushman and Lull’s research poses an interesting challenge to a widely propagated myth. But brands haven’t been bombarding us with suggestive images for nothing. “Any historical use of sex in advertising is drawing upon Freud’s ‘Pleasure Principle’,” says semiotician Dr. Alex Gordon. “This is the idea that humans are driven by a desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. Any sexuality or sexual subtext used in advertising is essentially linking a brand to the Pleasure Principle. It suggests that the brand itself can satisfy that erotic value. You don’t need to have sex, you need to buy this car or eat this chocolate bar.” [4]

For Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, “sex sells by promising sex to someone. It sells the idea that you’ll be sexy to someone. When you put a beautiful, sexy woman in an ad, it can work both ways – it says ‘you can have me and you can be me’.” [5]

According to Gordon, the type of sex and level of explicitness seen in adverts is contingent on the economic, political and social climate. “In advertising, the representation of sexuality is a representation of social confidence,” he says. “During times of economic decline, there’s a shift towards social conservatism. Overt signifiers of sexuality are not as permitted, or at least, not as tolerated. When there was credit, you could represent people dressed skimpily as M&S did [with models such as Noemie Lenoir and Myleene Klass]. But now we’re more concerned with the representation of social norms, so M&S gets rid of its skimpily clad women and uses role models such as Annie Lennox and Emma Thompson.” [4]

Do fatter wallets mean fewer clothes in ads? Do fatter wallets mean fewer clothes in ads?
Marks & Spencer (2009) ©

Sex or sexism?
In Western culture, representations of sex are predicated on the heterosexist male gaze. In the case of advertising, everyone is sold a version of sex that pertains to the heterosexual male experience. “If it was simply that sex sold, we’d see men and women equally objectified in popular culture,” writes Wade. “Instead we see women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men. That women’s object status and men’s sexual subjectivity is sold to women in women’s magazines (Cosmo and Glamour always feature scantily clad women on the cover) in no way undermines the idea.” [6]

Take Protein World. Its summer 2015 campaign for meal replacements and supplements featured a swimwear model demanding to know ‘Are you beach body ready?’ Incendiary because of its body-shaming tone, posters were defaced, protestors gathered in Hyde Park and 44,000 people signed a Change.org petition against it. [7] Deeper analysis reinforces the concept of female object status versus universal male sexual subjectivity. The model is the classic busty, perfectly proportioned, young blonde with pouty lips and a dead-eyed stare. She’s beautiful yet strangely lifeless. The question may as well read, ‘Are you sexually available at the drop of a hat?’ Yet not everyone was offended; Protein World tripled its sales in four days.

There’s been a raft of ads that objectify men with a female gaze implied, but the ads are funny. They poke fun at female sexuality. It’s sneaking-it-in sexism

Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College

This sort of visual lexicon is arguably most prevalent in the world of women’s lingerie. Gordon believes that “the entire lingerie business is constructed precisely through the rampant male gaze.” [4] The video for L’Agent by Agent Provocateur’s AW14 collection encapsulates this idea. Written and directed by Penelope Cruz, the ad features a hallucinating man stranded in the desert who sees a group of women strip down to their lingerie and do a dance workout. The raunchiness progressively intensifies, with fetishised close-ups of body parts and water dripping off gyrating bodies.

If the male gaze is prevalent, surely it’s time to construct a female gaze, or at least, an alternative to the male gaze? “Recently there’s been a raft of ads that objectify men with a female gaze implied, but the ads are funny,” says Wade. “They poke fun at female sexuality. It’s sneaking-it-in sexism.” [5] Dubbed as ‘hunkvertising’, these ads tend to feature parodical hunks selling mundane products. “I’m here to flush your pipe,” says the Liquid-Plumr guy to the bored, lusty housewife with a blocked sink. [8] Even Nicole Scherzinger’s asinine antics in the Müller ads frame female eroticism as farcical.

Sex (and controversy) certainly sold well for Protein World Sex (and controversy) certainly sold well for Protein World
Protein World (2015) ©

Insights and opportunities
The banality of hunkvertising isn’t a match for the empowering mood of ‘femvertising’. Like A Girl by Always, which debunked and redefined what it means to do something ‘like a girl’ has earned nearly 60 million YouTube views. Meanwhile, I Will What I Want from Under Armour, a campaign that championed women with formidable physical strength and mental resolve, won the Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes in 2015. [9]

According to research conducted by SheKnows, 52% of women have bought something because they like how the brand portrays women, and 94% believe portraying women as sex symbols in advertising is harmful. Curiously, only half of those surveyed identify as feminists. [10][11] The inference here is that if women aren’t able to relate to the body or version of sex being sold, they’re less likely to buy a product. But if you do want to use sex to sell to women, stick a high price tag on it. According to a 2013 study, women are less likely to have negative feelings towards a sexy ad if it’s selling a high-ticket item. [12]

It’s not as simple as making conscious consumer choices though. If sex in advertising redirects our biological and psychological needs, do we have the conscious power to render it ineffective? Symbols of sex – phallic objects penetrating women’s mouths, cars thrusting into tunnels – seem dated or, at least, inelegant to the savvy modern media consumer. Yet because of the level of sophistication and speed at which these images are disseminated, Gordon says that “these subtleties tend to elude our conscious mind, go into our unconscious mind and stimulate the Pleasure Principle.” [4]

Advertising has moved from adult sexuality and erotica to childhood innocence. It’s about childish surprise, delight, wonder, innocence, moral virtue and social purity

Alex Gordon, semiotician

Advertisers and brands also get to benefit from the diversification of media, explains Wade; “With all the different ways to consume media, it’s easy to isolate different audiences in different places. As a 41-year-old woman, I almost never [engage with the same media] as an 18-year-old boy. Advertisers can feed obviously and embarrassingly sexist stuff to an 18-year-old boy, and I would never know.” [5] However, the NotBuyingIt app – a platform for chronicling sexism in the media – and the online outrage directed towards Protein World are two example warnings that show new media can easily be used against advertisers; get it wrong and you will be called out.

It’s important to be socially and politically sensitive when using sex to sell. “We’re still in times of economic austerity, and struggling with this idea of sexual indulgence,” says Gordon. “Indulgence damaged the economy, and it damages the social, moral and economic fabric of the nation. Advertising has moved from adult sexuality and erotica to childhood innocence. It’s about childish surprise, delight, wonder, innocence, moral virtue and social purity.” He considers brands such as Lipton and sofa.com to be reflective of this shift. [4]

Although Bushman and Lull’s research shows that sex in advertising can be a turn-off, there are still many compelling reasons as to why sex is a powerful device. “I’m not sure that it makes sense to say that sex doesn’t sell anymore,” says Wade, “but you definitely have to be more conscious of your audience and smarter about how you use sexuality to sell things.” [5]

Emmajo Read is a copywriter and writer based in London. She currently contributes to Protein and DJ Magazine, has a sociology degree, and a Masters in cultural and critical studies.

Related behaviours
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1. 'Do sex and violence sell? A meta-analytic review of the effects of sexual and violent media and ad content on memory, attitudes, and buying intentions', Psychological Bulletin (2015)
2. Interview with Brad Bushman conducted by author
3. 'Do sex and violence sell? Maybe not, says new study', American Psychological Association (July 2015)
4. Interview with Alex Gordon conducted by author
5. Interview with Lisa Wade conducted by author
6. ''Sex Sells'', The Society Pages (March 2009)
7. 'Protein World profits from pissing people off', Canvas8 (April 2015)
8. 'Ad of the Day: Liquid-Plumr gives housewives more erotic cleaning fantasies', Adweek (July 2013)
9. 'Femvertising: Advertisers cash in on #feminism', The Telegraph (January 2015)
10. 'SheKnows unveils results of its Fem-vertising survey (INFOGRAPHIC)', SheKnows Media (October 2014)
11. 'These stats prove femvertising works', Adweek (October 2014)
12. 'Women find sexually explicit ads unappealing – unless the price is right', Association for Psychological Science (December 2013)


Emmajo Read is a writer and copywriter based in London. She has a bachelor’s degree Sociology and a master’s in Cultural and Critical Studies. For Canvas8, she’s written about everything from sex and solitude to pet parents and veganism. She’s also written for Protein and DJ Magazine.