Sex Doesn't Sell, After All
> 3/9/2007 11:00:06 AM

A study published in the March issue of the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology appears to directly contradict one of the primary tenets of the advertising industry: advertisements that aim to arouse potential customers with sexualized imagery make them more likely to buy the products contained therein regardless of the what the ads are selling or how closely the products are related to sex. In fact, in many cases, these ads are actually less effective than those with more erotically neutral content. This pattern largely holds true for both men and women.

In the unique study
, participants were split into four groups. The first and third groups watched an episode of HBO's notoriously racy "Sex and the City," whose topics included the quality of sexual performance and satisfaction and also featured nude and simulated sex scenes. The other two groups watched the Fox program "Malcolm in the Middle," a sitcom about teenagers and their dysfunctional family that contained no blatantly erotic material. During commercial breaks, the groups viewed one of two series of ads: one collection of spots designed to appeal to their sexual desires, usually featuring attractive female models in suggestive positions, or a different series that were simply promoting the products. After the shows ended, researchers asked study subjects to identify the items they'd seen advertised in an attempt to determine how the nature of the ads and the shows worked together to shape the accuracy of recollection.

The results surprised researchers: those who watched "Sex and the City" were universally less likely to remember the products in the subsequent ads, whether their content was sexual in nature or not. This was despite direct efforts by researchers to encourage recall by mentioning the product types if not the brand names. Those who watched the other program were slightly more likely to remember the ads, but the only differences in the results when comparing the two series of commericals were a slight increase in recall among men when compared to women. Still, this gap was much smaller than predicted, and overall, the chances of accurate recollection were not statistically different for the two groups of ads.

Previous research has indicated that female viewers are usually either bored or offended by highly sexualized ads. The more directly erotic the models in these ads appear, the less likely the young women involved are to respond enthusiastically. The ads used in these studies were drawn from popular women's magazines, which indicates that the (mostly male) advertising executives for the companies involved need to seriously reconsider the methods they use to appeal to female customers. Based on the results of this research, the same might apply to men. The reason for these findings is impossible to measure quantitatively, but some researchers speculate that the omnipotence of sex in the advertising world has dulled the public's responses to it, diminishing the effectiveness of such campaigns. Perhaps a significant portion of the public would find it refreshing to see more commercial breaks that simply espouse the benefits of the products in question without resorting to oversexualized imagery to sell trucks, hamburgers or shampoos. It would make for an unlikely but potentially enlightening experiment. Considering the billions of dollars poured into the television ad industry each year, its certainly worth a shot. 

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