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Why Sex Sells…More Than Ever

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

Magazine ads featuring sex are on the rise, with the exception of two not-too-sexy industries

  • Advertisers use sexual imagery to attract sales of products as diverse as perfume and cheeseburgers.

  • While using sexy ads might seem like a risky choice, studies show that it works.

  • Sex sells because it immediately grabs attention.

Sex still sells: A study from the University of Georgia looked at sexual ads that have appeared in magazines over the 30 years and found that the numbers are going up.

Why is sex important in sales?

Sex attracts attention. Though it's often a taboo subject, advertisers that use sex in their marketing often create effective and memorable campaigns. Brands such as Victoria's Secret and have created ads that might not even talk about the product but simply gain viewers' attention. In sales, gaining the attention of clients and potential buyers is often half the battle.

"Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective," said Tom Reichert, a professor and head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the study researchers. "Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hardwired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed."

People also succumb to the "buy this, get this" imagery used in ads, he said. "Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy," Reichert said. "But brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguably, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret are not much different than Hanes or Vassarette, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as 'sexy,' and some customers want that."

The researchers looked at 3,232 full-page ads published in 1983, 1993 and 2003 in the popular magazines Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Esquire, Playboy, Newsweek and Time. They found sexual imagery in 20% of the ads overall. The use of sex to sell everything from alcohol to banking services increased over the years: 15% of the

The ads were categorized based on the models' clothing, or lack thereof, and physical contact between models.

"Our findings show that the increase in visual sexual imagery over the three decades of analysis is attributable to products already featuring sexual content in ads, not necessarily widespread adoption by other product categories," Reichert said. "Specifically, alcohol, entertainment and beauty ads are responsible for much of the increase."

The study showed that sex is used primarily to sell impulse purchases.

"Sex is not as effective when selling high-risk, informational products such as banking services, appliances and utility trucks," he said.

Much of the growth was seen in alcohol, entertainment and beauty advertising. Out of 18 product categories, the ones that most often used sexual imagery in advertising were health and hygiene (38%), beauty (36%), drugs and medicine (29%), clothing (27%), travel (23%) and entertainment (21%).

"In almost every study I've seen, sexual content gives a purchase advantage in such instances," Reichert said.

Advertisers that did not use sex in their ads included charitable organizations and computer companies.

What types of companies use sex in their advertisements?

Many kinds of companies use sex in their advertisements. Some might use sexual imagery to display a product like lingerie or underwear; others might use it to discuss a medical product like prescription medication or condoms. But some companies use sex solely to gain viewers' attention. For example, an advertisement for Hardee's created controversy when it featured Kate Upton seductively eating a cheeseburger. While many people were discussing how the approach had nothing to do with the quality of the cheeseburger, this approach gained quite a bit of publicity.

How is sex used in advertising?

Advertisers use a variety of methods to incorporate sex. From Old Spice to Axe, these products supposedly will make men more desirable, according to their commercials. In perfume ads, only the most attractive women use the perfume, insinuating that if you use that type of perfume, you will also be beautiful. Sex is used to sell magazines with only the "sexiest men alive" being featured. Sports Illustrated sells a year subscription to many users who want it only for the swimsuit edition.

Women are used to sell products most often when pitching sex. In ads sampled from 2003, 92% of beauty ads featured female models. Just under half of the ads did not contain models.

With the exception of entertainment advertising, women overwhelmingly occupy the pages of sex-selling advertisements. Of the 38% of provocative health and hygiene advertisements that featured models, 31% were female and 7% were male.

"Perhaps more important, this analysis shows that the proportion for alcohol ads in 2003 increased to about one sexual ad for every three ads (37% )," Reichert said.

Reichert said this upward trend in erotic ads is a reflection of society.

"It takes more explicitness to grab our attention and arouse us than before," he said. "In the early 1900s, exposed arms and ankles of female models generated the same level of arousal as partially nude models do today. We can see during our lifetimes the changes in sexually explicit content on television, movies, books and other forms of media beyond just advertising."

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising. Leonard Reid, a professor of advertising at UGA Grady College, and Courtney Carpenter Childers, an assistant professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are co-authors of the study.

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Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily Writer Updated Feb 24, 2020

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