We’ve all heard the adage that sex sells. But does it really? New research suggests that sex makes ads more memorable, but that people who’ve seen the spots aren’t any more likely to recall the actual brands or products they advertise than those who’ve seen more PG advertisements.
The meta-analysis (login required) by researchers at the University of Illinois, Ball State University, and University of California-Davis examined 78 peer-reviewed advertising studies from 1969 to 2017, which collectively involved more than 17,000 consumers, primarily in the US, as well as Europe, Australia, and Asia.
The researchers looked at past experiments in which participants reported on their memory of, attitudes toward, and intentions to buy products after they were shown ads in print, billboards, posters, TV, or video that may have played elsewhere, like online. They found participants were more likely to remember ads that made sexual appeals than the ones that didn’t. But that they were not more likely to remember the brands featured in the ads. The participants were also more likely to have a negative attitude towards the brands that used sex in their ads than those that didn’t.
The sexualized ads also didn’t drive more people to buy things, or people to buy more things—the key goals of advertising—than the ones that didn’t.
“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” the report’s lead author, John Wirtz, told the University of Illinois. “This assumption that sex sells—well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”
The ads did connect with some participants. Men, on average, liked the ads with sexual appeals. The women studied did not.
This isn’t the first study to arrive at this conclusion. Another meta-analysis in 2015, by researchers at Ohio State University, found brands that used sex in their ads—from sexualized models to showing actual sex organs—were viewed less favorably than brands that ran neutral ads.
And, a 2016 analysis of six years of Super Bowl ads by Ace Metrix—which scores ads based based on how persuasive, likable, informative, attention-grabbing, unique, relevant, watchable, and perception-changing viewers found them, as well as whether the ads made them want to learn more about the brands or buy the products—found that sexy Super Bowl spots scored 9% lower overall than ads without sexy themes.
Brands appear to be taking note, too. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., which in the past aired racy commercials with voluptuous models, slashed the sex from their burger ads earlier this year. And provocateur GoDaddy—known for its sexy Super Bowl spots—gradually began toning down the sex its marketing in 2012. In 2015, it traded scantily-clad women for puppies in an unaired big-game spot. (It was pulled over an entirely different controversy.) And this year’s spot was thoroughly un-erotic:
But not everyone got the memo. Food-delivery startup Postmates recently launched a campaign that would be described as provocative at best. Really, it’s fairly disgusting. Quartz’s Alison Griswold described it as, “unapologetically sexual, with close-up photos of people—mostly women—frozen in orgasmic excitement over whatever piece of food is poised to enter their mouths.”
Unfortunately, that food appears to be bleeding salmon and chucked-up avocado toast. Are you hungry now?