Sex is used to sell practically everything today, from personal hygiene products to sport utility vehicles. But ads featuring models wearing come-hither looks run a certain risk: Some women find them offensive, and their negative attitude can rub off on the product or service being sold.
A newly published study reports this dynamic is real, but limited. A research team led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs reports women do find sexual imagery in advertisements distasteful—but only when erotic appeal is used “to promote a cheap product.”
This finding provides evidence for what the researchers call “sexual economics theory,” which suggests women “want sex to be seen as rare and special.” Associating lovemaking with a luxury item is one thing; using it to sell shaving cream is quite another.
“Women can be swayed to tolerate sexual imagery, as long as it comports with their preferences regarding when and why sex is used.”
In the journal Psychological Science, Vohs and colleagues Jaideep Sengupta and Darren Dahl describe two experiments providing evidence for their thesis. In the first, 87 undergraduates (47 women) watched three ads of 20 seconds apiece. Researchers asked them to silently rehearse a series of numbers as they did so, so that their minds would be occupied and “the ads would elicit spontaneous reactions.
One ad was for women’s watches. Half the participants saw a version featuring “explicit sexual imagery,” while the others saw one dominated by “majestic snowcapped mountains.” The price of the watch, which was displayed on the screen at the end, varied randomly: It was listed as either $1,250 or $10.
Participants then responded to that commercial. “Women who saw a sexually charged image used to sell a cheap product felt more upset emotionally and thought more poorly of the ad, compared with women who saw a high-priced product promoted with sexual images,” the researchers report.
In contrast, “men reported equivalent reactions to the sex-based ads, regardless of product price,” they add.
The second experiment, featuring 212 adults (107 women), was similarly structured, except it used print ads. Again, the target advertisement was for watches (this time, men’s and women’s); one version featured a mountain landscape, while the other pictured “a couple sexually embracing.” A prominently displayed price indicated whether it was a bargain or a luxury item.
The results confirmed those of the first experiment: “When the sexual ad featured low-priced products, women did not much like the ad.” In contrast, men’s response to the ads did not vary with the price of the product—a finding which, in the researchers’ view, “supports our contention that the concepts of sex and high worth are not interrelated for men.”
There are two interesting takeaways from this finding. The first is that “women can be swayed to tolerate sexual imagery, as long as it comports with their preferences regarding when and why sex is used,” Vohs and her colleagues write.
“A second, more profound implication,” they add, “is that women’s reactions to sexual images reveal their preferences about how sex should be understood”—that is, as something special and valuable.