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New Study Shows That Sex Doesn’t Sell

It’s time for agencies to get some new ideas.

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We all remember the Swedish Bikini Team, Fabio shilling fake butter, and Spuds MacKenzie, the beer-drinking bull terrier no woman could resist. All of these characters were dreamed up by ad execs to create sexy images for their products because, as we all know, sex sells. But a recent study by The Ohio State University contradicts that oft-heard advertising cliché.


A recent a meta-analysis of 53 past experiments involving a total of 8,489 subjects published by the American Psychological Association found that sex and violence in ads doesn’t help sell products. “It never helps to have violence and sex in commercials,” according to Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University and co-author of the study. “It either hurts, or has no effect at all.”

The reason that sex and violence aren’t as effective as we thought is not that they fail to grab the public’s attention. In fact, it’s just the opposite. According to the study, images of sex and violence are so intense, they distract the viewer from the most important thing in the ad, the product. The study also found that products advertised during sexual or violent programming do not fare as well either. “Brands advertised in violent contexts will be remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media,” the study says. “We also suggest that advertising in sexual media may not be as detrimental as advertising in violent media, but does not appear to be a successful strategy either.”

Does this mean that in the future we’ll see fewer scantily clad women in beer ads? Most likely not. Ad agencies can stick their necks out and create new campaigns that don’t rely on sex to sell, but their clients, the big, risk-averse brands, will more than likely balk.

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