Psychology of Shopping: How "Sex Sells" Ads Targeting Women

2013-12-08 13:34

When it comes to advertising, it’s often been said that “sex sells”. While that may be true when the ad targets men, do sexually explicit ads have the same effect on women?

A new study says it’s possible, but only if the advertisement is classy and sophisticated and promotes an item highly valued by women.

The study, published in Psychological Science, found that women are frequently turned off by ads containing sexual images. However, women can be swayed into changing their minds about the sexual content in the ad if the item is priced high enough.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota conducting the study, said that women are more likely to see past the sexual imagery of ads and buy into the goods being sold, so long as the goods are pricey and of great value.

Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management says that sexual economics theory is the key to understanding the responses of women toward sexually explicit advertising. She says that women typically express spontaneous and negative reactions when confronted with sexual images.

Vohs says that sexual economics theory explains why women react this way: it’s because the use of sexual imagery runs contrary to how women prefer to portray sex as something meaningful, special and rare.

However, the study found that women were more comfortable with the ads containing sexual images if they were for items of great value.

According to the researchers, women's reactions to sexual imagery in advertisements reveal that they have "deep-seated preferences” regarding sex pertaining to how it should be used and understood.

For the study, which involved both male and female participants, the research team asked them to view advertisements for women's watches. Some of the advertisements for the watch contained sexually explicit images, whereas others did not. The non-sexual ads instead featured a stunning backdrop of a mountain range.

Costs for the watch also varied considerably in the ads, as some were advertised for as little as $10, while others were priced as high as $1250 for the watch.

In order to tap into the participants more emotional “gut reaction” to the ads, a cognitive distraction was used to prevent them from thinking too deeply about the ads.

The “cognitive distraction” used in this case was asking each participant to memorize a 10-digit code prior to viewing the advertisements to dissuade them from over-focusing on the ads in an effort to instead get their gut reaction.

The findings showed that negative emotions were associated with cheap price, as the researchers discovered when women in the study reacted negatively to sexual images in advertisement for an inexpensive watch.

On the other hand, when women viewed sexual images in an advertisement for the exact same watch, only it was priced much higher, the women found the ad more acceptable.

In all the sexually explicit ads for the watch, the women expressed a variety of negative emotions that ranged from feeling repulsed or disgusted, to feeling angry over a cheap watch being connected to sex.

As for the watch ads that featured a mountain range instead of sexual images, the researchers were surprised to find that women had no emotional response to such ads.

Another interesting finding is that the men participating in the study also had similar responses to the sexually explicit ads, regardless of the how cheap or pricey the watch was being advertised for.

Accordingly, the researchers wondered if the men's responses were merely due to them not caring about women’s watches because there were irrelevant to them and therefore of little interest.


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