New Study Says Sex Doesn’t Sell

by Jessica Ramesh


For generations, advertising has been using sexual imagery, reference and innuendo to sell, and everybody assumed that this was the most effective strategy. However, new research from Ohio State University claims that sexual advertising is in fact ineffective. Danielle Haley at FSE Online Ltd considers the evidence

Just about every popular brand has used sex in an advertising campaign at some point, and although fashion and beauty products dominate, we also see sex used for advertising junk food, alcohol, cars, bicycles and even jazz festivals!

The Gender Ads Project shares just about every advert ever made with a sexual or violent nature. With such a long history of sex in advertising, surely it must be effective?

Dr. Brad Bushman, Professor of Communication and Psychology at The Ohio State University, disagrees. Brad believes that the use of sex in advertising is actually distracting. Yes, it will draw a person’s attention to an advert and raise eyebrows, but such strong visuals can actually impair memory and affect attitudes and buying intentions.

Use G-spots

The study suggests that rather than using overly sexual images in advertising, advertisers should focus on utilising ‘G-spots.’ In American advertising this refers to a ‘general audience’ rating. Making adverts that are suitable for all audiences is the most effective way to build a brand and appeal to a larger market.

In short, Brad Bushman says that the only thing that sex sells, is sex itself. Sexual advertising works perfectly for adult industry marketing, but if you’re marketing food, clothes, cars or sports equipment, your campaigns may be more effective if you develop a clear message that does not confuse your customers.

Christian bias?

However, Arwa Mahdawi, writing in The Guardian, has suggested that the whole study may actually be to further promote Brad Bushman’s personal view on sex in advertising. Mahdawi argues that Bushman has a track record of disapproving sex and violence in general, and also strongly promotes prayer. His previous studies ‘proved’ that violent video games turn children into monsters, while daily prayer helps to build a more balanced and happier society.

If sex doesn’t sell, what does?

It seems that one of the most effective ways to advertise is the use of humour. Innocent have been using this method with great success, and many other brands, such as Tango, Castlemaine XXXX, Orange and Heineken, have all created memorable adverts that have stood the test of time, using nothing but a few good gags.

Bushman is not the first to raise this issue. Greg Ippolito explains that advertising works when it grabs attention and sends a message that we retain in our memories. Sexual images do indeed grab our attention, but they do not always create a staying message. Watch his TEDTalk, Sex Sells! And Other Mythologies of Advertising.

In order for advertising to work, it has to tap into the human desire to have a better life. Although Greg Ippolito and Brad Bushman are both using examples from major global brands to demonstrate their ideas, the same rules apply to businesses of all sizes, and all types of advertising.

If you are running a Google Adwords CPC campaign, you need to design your adverts to attract the attention of web users and also encourage them to learn more. People click adverts because they believe that the product or page that the ad leads to will make their lives better in some way or other. Whether it is a product to use, a business service to increase productivity or just something to enjoy for a short period, the ad must address a specific need.

If you are struggling to make your Adwords campaign work for your business, call FSE Online today.