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Ad Researchers Have Just Determined That Sex Doesn’t Help Sell

Not more than anything else does, it appears.

Consumers are painfully familiar with the refrain “sex sells” every time one questions why there are so many racy images featured to promote decidedly non-sexual products, but does sex really sell better than other approaches?

A research team drawn from Ball State University and the University of California Davis sought to put the adage to the test to see if sex was as potent a selling device as common lore made it out to be. A meta-analysis (via QZ) reviewing 78 peer-reviewed studies looked domestically and abroad at 17,000 subjects to determine if sex did, in fact, sell.


They found it doesn’t. At least no more than other methods of advertising.

Speaking to the University of Illinois, the study’s lead author, John Wirtz stated simply, “We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal. This assumption that sex sells — well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, male subjects tended to favor the more sexual advertisements, but that preference didn’t translate into converted sale any more than other factors did.

So if you take issue with an ad like the one below on either the grounds of objectification or just good taste and logic…

...then take some comfort in the confirmed finding that it’s not doing much to help the people who decided to make it. In fact, the company responsible for the racy ad above has actually taken steps to tone down its at-times raunchy efforts. Though social pressure may be a factor, ultimately, the decision is just a function of the bottom line.

“If the ‘sexy ads’ had been effective, it’s unlikely the company or ad agency would have made such a drastic change,” Wirtz said. “When product is moving, people don’t make changes.”

So any time someone gives you “sex sells” as a knee-jerk reaction, don’t hesitate to cite this development.

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