Marketing Best Practices

Does Sex Actually Sell?

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield February 14, 2017

When Blake Irving accepted the role of CEO at GoDaddy in 2013, he inherited a brand with baggage.

GoDaddy was already a household name, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The domain name business was known more for its racy ads than anything to do with their business. The spots got plenty of attention, but Irving saw a fairly obvious problem—the company’s primary demographic was small businesses, 45% of which are owned by women.

They were poisoning their brand with the very people they needed to reach.

Or were they? Sure, people complained and called the ads misogynistic, but they were getting lots of attention. Everybody knows that “sex sells,” right?

Listen to this story or continue reading below:

Not quite.

“Sex sells” is one of those marketing cliches that seems to get tossed around dubiously—an excuse for titillation without restraint. Using sexual appeals in marketing does seem to grab attention for those brave enough to bare it all, but it can also serve as a crutch for those lacking creativity.

Naturally, sex ellicits strong emotions from people. But what does the science say about sex in advertising? Does it actually work… or is it just a cheap ploy, doing more harm than good?

The answer is a bit more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

Talk Nerdy To Me

Suggestive imagery as a selling tool is nothing new. In 1916, a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson created an ad that’s credited as the first to ever use sex to sell a product. The ad was for Woodbury Soap. The copywriter was a 25-year old by the name of Helen Lansdowne Resor. The tagline is an advertising classic—“A skin you love to touch.”

The artwork for the ad featured a woman with exposed shoulders and arms, sitting in a chair and looking away from a man who looms behind her, his hands running over her bare skin. Whether she realized it or not, Resor had created a technique that thousands of brands would use over the next century—the promise of increased desirability. Everyone from deodorant to beer companies would later use this same device to move products off the shelf.
But this is a tiny fraction of the ways advertisers use sex to capture attention. Being such an integral part of our society, there are thousands of ways advertisers portray intimacy, ranging from crass to clever.

sex sells advertisingThere are five basic types of sex appeals commonly used in ads, often in combination with each other: nudity and dress, sexual behavior, physical attractiveness, sexual referents, and sexual embeds. The first three are pretty self-explanatory, but those last two could use some background. Sexual referents essentially refers to innuendo and double entendre—anything offered as a wink and a nod to those “in the know.” Sexual embeds are similar, but with content that is picked up by our subconscious—sexual content that goes unnoticed at first glance.

These distinctions are important—there’s a lot of nuance to sexuality and those subtleties can have a big affect on how we respond. Like a delicate dance, it’s all about technique—the right words, the right look, and all the right moves.

That nuance and variety is part of what has made this topic so irresistible to academics. Ever since Woodbury’s famous ad, researchers have been examining how advertisers use sex—and whether or not it hits the spot for consumers.

Dr. Jacqueline Lambiase has studied this concept for years, and all that research has led her to one conclusion:

“I think sex sells in some cases for some brands under the right circumstances,” says Lambiase, a professor and researcher at TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. “And sometimes, even if the right brand uses sexually-oriented appeals in the wrong setting, it can really backfire on them.”

The risk with sexualized advertisements is that you’ll offend an audience that might otherwise be interested in doing business with you. But even if they’re not offended, sexy ads could prove to be does sex sell?ineffective tools. Research on the subject has found that certain techniques in the advertiser’s toolbelt could actually be harmful to a brand, often in counterintuitive ways.

So, let’s set the mood a bit with some steamy readings from academic journals, shall we?

Take the classic example of the attractive model in an advertisement. The technique and desired outcome is pretty simple: place an attractive model in an ad and hope that grabs attention long enough to get the product message in front of your audience. Advertisers call these types of ads “beefcake” and “cheesecake”—beefcake being sexy male models, cheesecake being sexy female models (phrases that are hilariously blunt for academic reading).

One of the big problems researchers have found with this technique is that it can be a little too effective at getting our attention. Multiple studies have found that sexy models do indeed catch our eyes, but at the cost of ad recall. When ads contain seductive imagery, consumers are less able to remember the product, the brand, or features showcased in the ad.

So basically, everything an ad is supposed to communicate—we’re too busy ogling the eye candy.

That’s obviously a big problem, but it goes deeper. Using sexy models in ads can affect brand attitude in a big way as well. As you might expect, women tend to have a strong negative reaction towards a brand that uses sexualized female models. Would it then hold true that men would be equally turned off by a brand that uses sexualized male models?


(Chart data source)

Men tend to have a pretty neutral response to the presence of a sexy male model, at least for this particular study. Other researchers have found evidence that people in general have a neutral or positive response to models of the same sex—sometimes even trusting them more than a model of the opposite sex. But even these studies can be a bit unreliable, with attitudes about sex and gender shifting and evolving quickly.

Still, aligning your brand with sex is a risky decision. The strong emotions around sex can make for a lot of volatility. Some research suggests that both men and women associate sexual ads with a cheap product—the stuff of late night cable commercials. Consumers have become more tolerant of sex in media, but at the same time they’re far less tolerant of the misogyny that often seems to be the default setting for sexualized advertising. Yet time and time again, brands run into this brick wall head first.

Sex Sells Advertising“One of the trends I keep seeing is the borrowing of the ‘codes of pornography’ in advertising, especially in fashion advertising. Those are things like hierarchy, violence, submission, and
objectification. That can be extreme and not healthy sexuality, which is a problem,” says Dr. Lambiase. “If you use (sex) in the wrong way or cross a line, you can be in a lot of trouble.”

Reckless sex appeals can lead to long-lasting damage—as GoDaddy found out. Once you’ve tied your brand to that value, it can be difficult to later rewrite your story. Trust, even for brands, is built in drops and lost in buckets.

But what if your brand has to use sex, because the product is, well… sex itself.

Practice Safe Advertising

Andy Mcananey is a creative director at the ad agency Havas London. He’s done work for international brands like Budweiser, Volkswagen, and MTV.

Oh, and Durex. Yes, the condom brand.

Clearly, if you’re trying to sell condoms, it’s kind of hard to avoid the subject of sex. Yet, as a product that helps people avoid some pretty serious consequences, conveying trust and authority is paramount—you don’t want to be viewed as the “cheap” brand in this category.

That’s a delicate balance to strike.

“A lot of brands use sex to sell their products, whereas Durex’s product is sex and intimacy,” Mcananey explains from his office in London. “So when other brands use sex, it can come across as cheap or crass. The opposite is fundamentally true of Durex—they want an open and honest conversation about sex, where people are equals and can enjoy it on their own terms.”

Durex address sex head-on, avoiding cheeky innuendos, but at the same time the spots are tame enough to avoid upsetting those who may be uncomfortable talking about sex in frank terms. “It’s a grey area to some degree. Sex is such a personal thing, different people have different takes on it,” says Mcananey. “But if you’re positive about sex, and the act, and intimacy, then hopefully you won’t offend anyone.”

In one of their emotional campaigns, Durex brought in couples to discuss how they use technology—and how it often creeps into the bedroom and interrupts time that could be spent together. The interviewer asks the couples if they’d be interested in a new technology that could help their sex lives. That technology? The off button.

There’s a certain amount of social responsibility a brand like Durex has to carry as well. They’re frequently supporting safe sex initiatives and working to remove social stigmas around protection. All of this plays an important role in their brand voice. Sex isn’t something they use for shock or cheap thrills, but as an avenue for promoting healthy, equitable relationships—a far cry from the brash “cheesecake” commercials less thoughtful brands abuse, rife with misogyny and sleaze.

Mcananey scoffs at even using the word “sexy” to describe the work, because it’s more than that. “It’s a terrible word. The word ‘sexy’ isn’t exactly ‘sexy,’” he explains. “But what is ‘sexy’ is having an equal relationship; a couple having intimacy and an enjoyable relationship together. That would be ‘sexy’ to me.”

That’s What Sells.

There’s this great scene early on in Mad Men between Peggy Olson and Don Draper. Peggy, the still-very-green junior copywriter, comes to Don with an ad for an airline featuring short skirts and plenty of innuendo. Don looks at the draft, underwhelmed. Peggy stands up, chin held high, and defends her work:

“Businessmen like short skirts. Sex sells,” she says confidently. “Says who?” Don replies with a sly smile. “Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this… you are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells.”

This sentiment seems to hold true in the ad agencies of the real world. When asked how he would advise a brand that wanted to use sex in an ad, Mcananey flatly says “I wouldn’t. It’s cheap, it’s easy. Sex may sell, but it devalues your brand and does long-term damage.”

To professionals like Mcananey, sexualized ads reek of desperation. A cheap way to get attention, at the cost of long-term viability. A cop-out from doing the hard work of building a brand identity and voice that people trust.

“Like many emotional appeals, sex goes right after that lizard that lives inside (our brains),” says Dr. Lambiase. “I think brands should ask themselves ‘Is that a value you want your brand to have?’”

Blake Irving, the new head at GoDaddy, decided that wasn’t a value he wanted for the company. Their long-term survival was not going to be decided by salacious marketing that alienated most ofDoes Sex Actually Sell?
their audience, but on building a reputation as an invaluable resource for small business owners. The cerebral brand—not the reptilian one.

Besides just being a more prudent strategy, it imbues a certain societal responsibility on both brands and advertisers to use their position to make society a more equitable place. To not embolden our more misogynistic impulses, but guide the way we address sex as a society in a more healthy way—equal and intimate.

“Some brands will fire something out and they know it’s going to be offensive, and they know it’s not the right thing to do,” says Mcananey. “There’s a Bill Bernbach quote where he says ‘As advertisers we can either denigrate society or build it up.’ I think it’s incumbent on a brand like Durex to use sex in the right way and help society and build it up.”

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