UI study: Value of sex appeal in advertising not so clear cut

UI study: Value of sex appeal in advertising not so clear cut

Sex sells, right? According to UI advertising Professor John Wirtz, it's a bit more complicated than that.

By conducting a meta-analysis of 78 studies, Wirtz and his co-authors, Johnny Sparks and Thais Zimbres, found that when it comes to sexual appeal in advertising, there's really no way to tell if it will increase product sales.

The results of the study are best described as a coin toss, Wirtz said.

"If you flip a coin, then half of the time you're going to get heads, half the time you're going to get tails," Wirtz said. "And so when you are an advertiser or a marketer, you're hoping to shift that to 60/40, 70/30, whatever it might be."

But companies deciding to use sexual appeal in their advertisements are staying in the middle.

"Some campaigns are going to work, some aren't going to work," Wirtz said.

While the authors did not conclude which brands were successful in using sexual appeal to push products, Wirtz suspects that brands selling things like condoms, lingerie or sexual aides would be more successful than a fast-food chain.

"It's what people expect," Wirtz said. "It's what people connect with those kind of products. It's what works."

The research does not target specific advertisements or brands, but Wirtz noted the fast-food chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's switch in their approach during the 2017 Super Bowl telecast.

The chains, known for their highly sexual TV spots, made a "very conscious switch" from sex appeal to promoting their ingredients and products.

"If people are remembering that you had this sexual appeal, but it doesn't change the way they feel about your product or it doesn't want to make them buy it more, then ultimately using sexual appeal maybe isn't the best strategy," Wirtz added.

The study concluded that while people will remember advertisements boasting sexual appeal, it's not guaranteed that they will remember the brand or be encouraged to purchase the product.

"It's clear that people remember ads with sexual appeal more. It's clear that males like ads with sexual appeals, and females (actively) dislike them," Wirtz said. "But for the purchase intention, it's kind of a coin flip."

A surprising finding for Wirtz was that people gravitated toward advertisements with female models rather than males.

"I think that one is something that we're going to come back to and try and look at a little more closely," Wirtz said.

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