Actually, Sex Doesn't Sell, According to Research

It turns out we all know the model and the burger aren't the same thing.


What’s better than sex? A lot, when it comes to advertising. According to new research published online in June in the International Journal of Advertising, the age-old adage of “sex sells” is actually quite misleading.

“We found that people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect doesn’t extend to the brands or products that are featured in the ads,” says lead author John Wirtz, an assistant professor in the department of advertising at the University of Illinois.

Wirtz and his fellow researchers analyzed 78 advertising studies from over three decades, honing in on what effect sexual appeal had on a person’s perception of an advertisement. The results show that study participants were very unlikely to remember a brand because it has a sexy ad. In fact, they were also more likely to have a negative opinion of that brand if it pandered to the whims of the flesh.

“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” says Wirtz. “This assumption that sex sells — well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”

In defining sexual advertisement, the researchers included advertising with partially to fully nude models, models touching things in sexual ways or moving in sexual ways, innuendos, and something called “sexual embeds,” which are partially hidden pictures or words that elicit a sexual message.

On average, men did tend to like ads with sexual appeals, whereas women really didn’t like them. And regardless of what gender enjoyed sexual ads, neither were more inclined to purchase a product based on the ads.

As much as it’s probably best to address our culture’s disturbing obsession with adding sexual innuendo to just about everything, will this research spell the end for commercials like this?

Researchers have often attempted to answer the question, ‘Does sex sell?’ In this article, we present a meta-analysis of studies that used an experiment to test the effect of sexual appeals in ads on memory, attitude, and purchase intention. Our analysis revealed a significant positive effect for sexual appeals on ad recognition and recall (weighted Cohen’s d = .38, p < .001), but the effect on brand recognition and recall was not significant (d = .09, p = .30). We also found that the effect of sexual appeals on attitude towards the ad was not significant (d = −0.07, p = .26); however, additional analysis showed that males (d = .27, p < .01) evaluate ads with sexual appeals significantly more positively than females (d = −.38, p < .001). Finally, we found a small significant negative effect on brand attitude (d = −.22, p < .05), but no effect on purchase intention (d = .01, p = .94).
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