Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


blank-advertising-space

(PHOTO: H.KAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Women Are OK With Sex in Ads—If the Product Is Valuable

• December 02, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: H.KAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests women aren’t automatically opposed to sexual imagery in advertisements, but they do object when it is used to sell cheap products.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.