There is the famous adage that half of any advertising budget is wasted, but no one knows which half. Recent studies seem to have found some of the waste, and that is advertising that uses sexual content.
Yes, sex doesn’t sell after all.
These are the findings of a new a study published by the academic journal Psychological Bulletin.
For those of you who cannot believe this, let me repeat: sex doesn’t sell after all.
Why it doesn’t sell
The study found that sexual imagery in television diverts viewers’ attention from a brand. In a Bloomberg interview, Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said plainly:
It never helps to have violence and sex in commercials. It either hurts, or has no effect at all.
Just as stunning as how bikini-clad starlets or bare-chested incubi won’t sell your brand, is the reality that there is no “significant difference in how men and women reacted to the different types of advertising.” However, the broader compilation of data showed that sex had a larger effect on males, according to Bushman.
Keeping up with astounding news is the reality that the study’s findings are not even new. A 2007 study from the University College London claimed: “There was no main effect of advertisement type on brand recall suggesting that the presence of sex in advertising does not assist memory for the advertisement.”
How sex became prevalent in advertising
How did the maxim of “sex sells” become a mainstay of advertising, marketing and even computer hacking (cough…Ashley Madison)? It seems intuitive that one of humanity’s primal urges get placed at the center of any selling effort. However, sexual imagery was basically nonexistent a century ago, with a few exceptions like the Pearl Tobacco brand and the W. Duke & Sons trading cards, both which featured sexually provocative divas.
So exactly what happened to society?
We can probably blame one person in history: Ernest Dichter
Dichter is considered one of the fathers of the market research and the focus group. Thriving in the early to mid-20th century, he was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud. That meant Dichter viewed individuals as oceans of unconscious, primordial desires that surfaced with the right stimuli. Sex was one of them.
As I wrote in Freud and the Intriguing History of the Focus Group:
It is said that sex sells, but to a Freudian like Dichter the truth is that sex buys. Our sexual urges and identities are with us every moment, even when purchasing mundane items, Dichter thought. He always advocated, not always successfully, that his clients heavily employ phallic symbols, curvatures in design and pleasured-looking models—all coyly hidden in a conservative era.
Dichter’s ideas were extremely successful, making brands like Betty Crocker and Ivory Soap iconic to consumers (with plenty of subliminal messaging). He was the main influence on why Barbie looks like…well…Barbie.
Some experts have even said that Don Draper’s edgy thinking on Mad Men draws directly from Dichter’s philosophy.
What happened next is obvious. The hidden symbols and imagery of Dichter began to move to the vanguard of a competitive advertising industry. At the same time, society became more open and the sexual revolution liberated everyone but Pat Boone. The porn industry became the living archetype of successful capitalism. Eventually, sex was used to sell everything from food to automobiles, and it seems no one cared to ask if sexuality actually promoted a product.
How do you sell beer or lingerie then?
Obviously, sex isn’t going to go away. Yet understanding its power (or lack thereof) could go a long way to making sure that advertising budgets don’t get (as) wasted. As an advertising execute put sexually into context:
If you are advertising a male deodorant like Axe (Lynx in the UK) or lingerie like Victoria’s Secret, you’d be a fool to overlook such a strong selling mechanism. But if you’re trying to sell a lawn mower or a new sofa with nudity and sex, you’re doing your product a serious disservice. Yes, you’ll get attention. But it’s the wrong kind of attention, and won’t lead to a bigger and better brand. Sex, used sparingly and judicially, is a strong selling tool. But abuse it, and you will ultimately lose out.
Unless you’re Miley Cyrus…