(although it does a good job of selling itself)
I have a long-standing vision of myself as the big advertising art director. I’m donning peg-leg Armanis with a tight crotch, and sporting a flowing Diesel Sevento shirt. My face is perfectly framed by Calvin Klein glasses. (Hey, I’ve already got those!) I’m directing a beautiful young model to take off more of her clothing. “Look honey, you’re not back in Kansas now, baby,” I would purr, “We’re in Florence, Massachusetts, and in Florence, sex sells.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom—and my fanciful dreams—sex doesn’t help sales, and can actually be a hindrance.
According to the 2005 book Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal, about one-fifth of all ads employ sex in an attempt to sell. The problem is that studies have shown that subjects are no more likely to recall erotic ads than non-erotic ones. And women in particular are more likely to perceive too much sex in marketing as a negative.
A recent study found that nudity has no positive impact on movie popularity with viewers or critics. Top-grossing films, such as Spider-Man, typically have only mild sex or nudity. “Sex did not sell, whether in the domestic or international box office,” said Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis. “Even among R movies, less graphic sex is better.”
The same goes for video gaming. Yes, you heard me, gaming, that world frequented mainly by sexually repressed and immature young men—or so goes the stereotype. Apparently, they aren’t impressed with straightforward sex. Playboy games have been met with indifference, and even cartoon adventurer Lara Croft has had her body “reduced to more anatomically feasible proportions” at the same time as her critical stock has risen.
Why is it that sex—something most of us think too much about—doesn’t do a better job of selling?
First, we are becoming more accustomed to sex. It is all around us and very accessible. Second, sex is blinding and doesn’t like to share the stage. People might recall a sexy ad, but they rarely remember what the ad was trying to sell. Chaste ads might not get the heart pounding, but they do a better job of getting the mind to focus on what advertisers want it to focus on—the product.
This doesn’t mean the end of trying to use sex to sell. As we are all exposed to more sex, our titillation level rises, so we will probably see an increase in sex in marketing before we see a decline. Unfortunately, companies will push the boundaries under the delusion that sex, if done right, will sell for them.
For the rest of us, this means:
• Choose models who look more like your customers, which probably means less sexy and more normal looking. Or set the standard a notch above your customer, offering a realistic aspiration. Extremely sexy/attractive is just too out-of-reach for most of us.
• Using realistic models will also help customers’ perception of you being authentic.
• Don’t advertise around sex, such as during sexy TV shows. Studies show that your ads are less likely to be remembered.
• If you are looking to tantalize your customer, studies show that men prefer to see 40 percent of a woman’s body. Less than that is seen as prudish; more suggests a woman might be unfaithful. (We’ve no idea what percentage of a man’s body women prefer to see, but co-workers suggest it has less to do with a percentage than with what is seen.)
• Don’t use sex to try to sell, unless you are trying to sell sex itself.
So much for my peg-leg photographic dream. The lesson here is that marketing is best grounded in what works; don’t get too wrapped up in what is just fantasy, however appealing.