Warning: Explicit Content Sells – Or Does It?

What do Carls Jr., PETA, the War of Worlds mobile video game and Mythbusters have in common?


These companies (with the exception of Mythbusters who conducted a study, but we’ll get into that later) have used sex in their ads, attempting to cash in on the advertising industry mantra: sex sells.

It might be the rising hemlines synonymous with summer heat waves, but we’ve noticed a barrage of sexualized ads lately. There’s even been recent speculation that a Japanese discount retailer created a fake in-store sex tape as part of an advertising campaign. While this is an extreme example, it got us thinking; does sex really sell? And if it does, when is it or isn’t it appropriate to use it in video marketing?

What we found surprised us. But before jumping into that, let’s look at why sex is perceived as a sales booster.

The Excitement of Sex

If advertisers and marketers could hire people to prowl the streets, pounce on and pin down their ideal customer and force them to view their ads, they would. In fact, I’m sure someone, somewhere is figuring out how to make that a viable business strategy as we speak. But for now, the advertising industry must rely on creativity to capture your attention. How do they do this? Simple, they play on your emotions, and they’re so good at it you often don’t even realize it!

According to author Byrony Thomas:

“to grab someone’s attention, you’ll be most effective if your message gets an emotional reaction. Because, we’re not consciously in control of our emotional responses. They seem to happen to us. So, if you can trigger an emotional response…your buyer can’t help but notice you.”

Advertisers look to elicit positive emotional responses to their content through things like nostalgia, humor and eroticism. Those brainiacs over at Psychology Today explain:

“when you are exposed to erotic stimuli, a region deep within your brain—the nucleus accumbens—becomes activated. This is the part of our brain that is “turned on” when we experience positive emotions”

It turns out we’re biologically hardwired to respond to any sexual stimuli we see! Advertisers figured this out pretty quickly and have been using it ever since; but is it effective?

We looked at 3 factors people perceive as having an effect on whether sex sells: gender, value and ethics.

Forget saving the best for last, let’s take a look at what we found the most surprising first…

#1. The Gender Gap

As a female in the marketing industry I’m often looked to for a take on the “female experience” after viewing an ad. I offer my personal perspective and tend to err on the side that women don’t generally respond as positively to sexualized ads.

I was wrong (there, I admitted it! Well, kinda…).

The crew over at Mythbusters tested this in another industry that’s known to exploit the theory sex sells; the service industry. Check out their experiment:

On average the total tips increased by 30% the ‘sexier’ the waitress was; and that’s not even the most shocking bit. Of the tips received, women out-tipped the men giving the sexier waitress 40% more per tip than the conservative-looking one!

Another instance where women would seemingly be unimpressed by oversexualized ads is the SuperBowl. SuperBowl advertising has almost become a sport in itself; who can snag the best airtime spots? Which advertisement will go viral? Who’ll sell the most? Historically, SuperBowl ads have been geared predominantly towards men and are overflowing with bro’s, beers and boobs; things women likely won’t appreciate.

Well, get ready for the upset.

A survey of women who watched the 2013 SuperBowl found 69% of women ages 18-59, and 74% of women ages 18-34, really liked the sexualized imagery of the ads, compared to 85% of men who said the same. Half of the women also went on to say they don’t feel SuperBowl ads target men only.

So, survey says: the argument that women don’t respond well or appreciate erotic stimuli in advertisements is FALSE!

#2. What’s it Worth?

Sexy ads have been used to sell everything from cheeseburgers to luxury cars. With such a widespread range of products, does the product’s value affect whether sex sells?

In short, yes. And in a big way.

The journal of Psychological Science analyzed whether a change in product price affected the response to a sexualized ad. A group of men and women were shown a sexualized watch ad indicating the price of the watch was $10, while another group were shown the same ad but instead were told the watch was priced at $1,250. How do you think the group responded?

“Women found sexual imagery distasteful when it was used to promote a cheap product, but this reaction to sexual imagery was mitigated if the product promoted was expensive. This pattern was not observed among men. Furthermore, we predicted and found that sexual ads promoting cheap products heightened feelings of being upset and angry among women.”

If that’s the case, how do those oh-so-popular Carl’s Jr. ads stack up? Not surprisingly, they don’t. Here’s one super-sexy Carl’s Jr. ad:

According to Amertiest, ads like this offer a spike in brand recall, but hurt brand perception overall:

“52% of Ameritest viewers found the ad offensive and 51% found it irritating and annoying. A substantial 32% felt worse about Carl’s Jr. for having seen the ad, compared to 8% who feel that way after seeing an average fast-food ad, which itself is worse than the averages for other industries.”

Case in point: don’t use sex to sell low-priced products.

#3. Are Morals for Sale?

Using sex to advocate for humanitarian causes seems like an obvious no-no, yet plenty of companies have tried, hoping to shine a spotlight on their issue; but is that a smart strategy?

Some noteable ads of this type come from the animal activists, PETA. Blending sexy celebrities with catchy slogans, they created a series of ads like this:

Does it capture your attention? Yep. Is it effective? The University of Pennsylvania’s study says “not so much”:

“these findings demonstrate that this approach can backfire, with exposure to sexualized advertising reducing both intentions to support the ethical organization and behavior helpful to the animal-rights cause  In sum, our findings indicate that organizations promoting ethical causes should be especially concerned with communicating their message ethically, specifically in ways that do not dehumanize women. They also show that dehumanizing women not only has negative consequences for women, but also for the ethical causes that traffic in them.”

Turns out common sense prevails (whew!) and ethical issues should NOT be sexualized.

The Quick & Dirty

There’s no single answer to the question of whether sex sells, however, research shows there are instances where sex is and isn’t appropriate.

Here’s our take: if your video marketing goal is to capture the attention of your audience to raise awareness of your brand, increase click-throughs to your site or landing page, or add “edge” to your marketing content, incorporating erotic stimuli into your next video might actually add the impact you’re looking for. However, consider the following:

IF’s, AND’s & BUTT’s of Sex in Video Marketing

  • IF you’re new to the video marketing arena, leave the sexualized imagery to the pros and focus on telling your story to engage your audience instead of capturing their attention with shock value alone.
  • BUT (not butt…get your mind out of the gutter), if you’re quite the savvy video marketer (ie. have an experienced agency behind you) there are times when a little sexiness can help achieve your video marketing goals:
    • IF it’s tasteful for both men and women. Try steering clear of targeting males only; women will pick up on too much of it awfully quick!
    • IF you’re selling a luxury product, AND,
    • IF you’re not advocating for an ethical issue.

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