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Sex in Advertising

August 25th, 2005 by Bob Bly

Does sex sell?

Or does sex in advertising have the opposite effect, distracting the consumer from the product?

As reported in NewScientist (8/20/05, p. 6), a new study from Vanderbilt University suggests the latter.

The study found that erotic images stop us from registering and remembering things we see immediately afterward ? for up to 800 milliseconds.

That means when a viewer sees a bikini model in a TV commercial splashing in the surf, he is too distracted to remember the brand of the beer she pulls out of the cooler and holds up to the camera a second later.

What?s your experience? Does sex in advertising really SELL? Or does it just get attention, without making the cash register ring and generating a positive ROI?


This entry was posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2005 at 3:26 pm and is filed under Advertising. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

67 responses about “Sex in Advertising”

  1. Robert B. McNeill said:

    In “Ogilvy on Advertising” David Ogilvy gives an example of a French campaign that successfully featured a bikini-clad model a number of years ago (I think it was used in a billboard ad).

    Generally, though, I don’t think sex does sell. It gets attention, sure. But, as you rightly point out, in most cases for the wrong reasons.

    I can think of one only area where it might be effective — where it is used to bolster the sales message (eg, when selling ‘Glamour” mag subscriptions).

  2. JSLogan said:

    After I read about the bikini model…I forgot the question.

    Therein is my answer.

  3. Rich French said:

    Great question. I’m struggling with whether or not to use a viral video I created to get my prospects attention. My CEO will not let me use this video…and I tend to agree, but I do think at the end of the day, it would get passed around to decision makers. But will this sell or just offend…Here’s the link.

  4. Kevin Stirtz said:

    Hi Bob. Great question, one I’ve often asked myself. I’d say sex tends to pull people’s attention away from the message unless you happen to be selling something involving sex or eroticism. Also, I’ve never believed sex can make people buy a product they don’t otherwise want. So, the “grab their attention” advantage of sex in advertising seems to pay off only if your purpose is to entertain your audience. For most of us there’s not much upside in that.

  5. Robert B. McNeill said:

    Rich: I’d say go with your own and your CEO’s instincts. In my opinion, this is innuendo masquerading as a selling message. It won’t sell.

    (It’s also extremely sexist, and is highly likely to cause offence.)

  6. Jason B. said:

    Sex and beauty done correctly does give a boost to response. We have TONS of empirical tests that show how adding a photo of a beautiful model (not doing much of anything) trounces ads with no photo.

    The 800 ms data is interesting but in a short commercial of 30 seconds there is still plenty of time to seduce with salesmanship.

    I haven’t read the report Bob referenced but I am pretty sure it was based on the results of advertisers who don’t have an OUNCE of salesmanship in their blood and can’t string together even one benefit oriented statement.

    — Jason B.

  7. Nuno Andrade said:

    As one of the many weak-willed young mean who thoroughly enjoured Go Daddy’s Superbowl commercial in which a young, voluptuous lady has a “wardrobe malfunction,” I don’t know if I can agree with that study. True, I had no idea what the ad was for after watching it, but after visiting the site out of curiosity (and, I might shamelessly add, to see Ms. Volupto again) and seeing the pricing on domain names, I became an instant customer. Thank you Go Daddy, for your prices . . . and for the commercial. (I swear I don’t work for them.)

  8. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Pamela, how do you know? Can you quote research studies or response statistics? This isn’t a challenge. I’d just like to learn more about this topic — beyond just anecdotal opinion.

  9. Johan said:


    Ogilvy said that an ad using a (unrelated) celebrity has a high recall rate. Everyone remembers the celeberity – unfortunately not the message. Is the same not true for sex?

    Sex has a power but – for the woring reasons(?)

    Copywriting Tactics. They need to know you, like you and trust you before you you get the kiss

  10. Bob Bly said:

    Johan: I don’t care about “recall scores.” I only care if they order the product.

  11. Edward Weiss said:

    Most people buy on emotion and justify their purchase later. What stronger emotive force is there than sex?

    And let’s not forget the strategy of savvy advertisers – they want to reinforce the metamessage and get into the mind of the prospect. After the seed is planted and watered enough times, the sales come. Hasn’t this been tested innumberable times by marketers?

  12. Carla said:

    I think there is a chemical reaction that happens in a persons brain when they see “sex” being advertised. For most people, they become curious enough to look and their mind becomes magnetized by the emotions that the person feels.

  13. Keith said:

    The reason “sex sells” is because sexual images are used to show you what you can attain if you buy the product. The product becomes a means to the sexual end, if you will. Beer ads imply that if you buy their beer, you will have really fun parties and lots of hot chicks will show up. Diamond ads imply that your wife will be “quite thankful” if you buy her a nice necklace. The potential buyer is at point A, and the sex is at point C. How can you position your product as “point B”? That seems to be the core question which separates successful use of this strategy from unsuccessful use of it.

    To relate to an earlier comment, the viral marketing S&M mapping locator thing seems like an example of unsuccessful positioning because mapping just isn’t a “point B”. It isn’t related enough to the content of the ad. I kept expecting the payoff to be some kind of dental work or “smile makeover”–something with pain and apprehension–in which case, the joke might work and the humor of the innuendo might trigger people to forward it on. Mapping software? I don’t think so.

  14. R Dalton said:

    I am doing a persuasive essay for my communications class, and a web search brought me to this page. I have found it very informative as far as getting other’s opinions on this – and just as a fyi, the article that Bob was talking about is at (just in case any one is interested – since I noticed that Jason B. commented that he couldn’t find it.)

  15. R Dalton said:

    I do apologize, Mr Jason B. did not say he couldn’t find it he said he hadn’t read it – I do apologize for that oversight.

  16. ReadyCompanies said:

    i think the more expensive the item – the levy of sexiness will rise. for example for expensive perfumes – the sexiness is usually maxed out.

  17. Karen said:

    Hi all. In doing some research for a paper for a college course, I found myself here. Read some of the responses and just had a little to add. I think it has been proven that sex in advertising, be it male or female, does generate sales to some extent. My only comment is just the message that so many “sexual” ads subliminaly force on young minds. Our poor children are obsessed with body image in trying to look like the models in these ads that they are having severe health and mental problems. I guess that is my biggest concern. I don’t really care one way or the other for myself, just my children. I want them to grow up not having to worry about looking like the people in the ads. Guess that falls back on my shoulders, huh?

  18. Carrie said:

    Lately I’ve been noticing just how constant the stream of media images has been pouring into my personal life, as well as my intimate life. I’m getting tired of the same old worn out message that sex equals success. Last night to amuse my boyfriend, I suggestively rubbed a packet of pizza puffs along my midriff, breathlessly whispering, “if you buy me these pizzas I’ll blow your pepperoni…” He got the joke. Thank God! It’s good to know that not all men are neanderthals that can be led around by their phallic symbols. A woman having an orgasm just by washing her hair, now that’s rich. If only it were that easy. Where the hell is the intelligence in advertising? When will it advance to modern times, instead of relegating back to the ol’ glory days of cave man instincts and inuendos? Lately, when I see sex in advertising, I say, man, they must think we’re really stupid. For the most part, it just looks like some horny old add guys creating a venue through which they can vicariously upload their fantasy lives. These men should think a little more than a 800ms dance in the pants. Not all men are so easily manipulated. And if they want to be, they can go to the porn industry. Why is advertising seeming to vear off into that direction? Today, next to the kids magazines, such as My Little Pony and Nemo, there was a stack of Maxim Magazines, and a well-flipped through Playboy. My twins are six, boy and girl. It’s interesting to see their reactions…sex media has it that the girl naturally progresses from Barbies to bimbo…and my boy, well, I just try to teach him that he has a brain, and that it’s not hidden in his Hulk underwear. I’ll end with this: today we are subject to more media hits in one day than our grandparents were in a lifetime. I am growing to despise an industry that can’t set its obsession with sales and sex aside to consider what impact this will have on society, whether it be individual or global.

  19. Anonymous said:

    sex in advertising is completely wrong!!!!! that’s all i have to say

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    I think that if you want to buy things just because it has a hot person on it then go right ahead!

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    I think it is okay for related products. For example, if you are promoting sexy cloths, you want to use a sexy girl to bring out the best in cloths.

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