Bikinis, Babes, and Buying


Scantily clad women have been used to sell products to men for decades, and likely for millennia in one form or another. There’s little doubt that the typical male brain is wired to respond to attractive females in revealing attire. But is this a cheap attention-getting trick that has no real impact on sales, or does it actually work? Researchers shed new light on this topic by exposing subjects to either videos of women in bikinis or more neutral videos, and evaluating their decision making ability.

The results of the tests, reported in a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice,” suggests that guys studying bikini-clad girls make worse decisions.

In each test, the researchers offered the men the choice between being paid 15 euros immediately or bargaining for a larger sum that they’d be willing to wait a week or a month for. In all the tests, the men exposed to the sexy imagery or bras cited delayed reward amounts that were lower than the amounts cited by the men who saw sex-neutral imagery. For example, while a man who looked at landscapes might have demanded an extra payment of 10 euros a month later (totaling 25), the bikini-gazer might have been willing to settle for five extra (totaling 20). The sexy imagery did not work on all men all the time, but, as a group, men with sex on their brains settled for a less lucrative bargain, suggesting they were more impulsive and valued immediate gratification more than the controls. [From – Science proves that bikinis turn men into boobs by Brian Alexander.]

An earlier study, “Heat of the Moment: The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision Making,” by neuroeconomics expert George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Dan Ariely of MIT, similarly showed that young men who were sexually aroused made quite different decisions about things like having unprotected sex or getting their partner drunk to make her more pliable. As in the bikini study, being sexually aroused caused the male subjects to be more focused on short-term gratification than on long-term logic.

In general, though, all our brains, Loewenstein believes, can be thought of as being of “two minds,” there is the affective system,( “Dude! Who cares what it costs! She’s hot!”) which answers to our basic drives, and the deliberative system (“That’s your IRA contribution!”). To think of this another way, picture an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Even in the heat of the moment, there is still that little voice that says “You know you are making a mistake” – the trouble is it gets drowned out by the volume of the affective system.

We are constantly negotiating between these two systems, which is why economists are so interested; it’s how we make purchasing decisions.

What does this mean for marketers? Do bikinis really sell? To begin with, this effect seems to be a short-term one that would be most effective at the point of purchase. The ideal selling situation, no doubt, would be to have the bikini-clad babe selling to the guys in person. That would ensure both maximum impact and the ability to direct the purchasing behavior to the desired product. Most products aren’t conducive to such a sales approach, though, and a somewhat effective alternative might be posters, point-of-purchase displays, ane even product packaging. Marketers, of course, should be aware that female buyers might find the same images off-putting and use them judiciously. In addition, marketers should ensure that the images are consistent with the brand image – it would make no sense to cheapen a brand’s perception for a fleeting sex appeal boost.

Something that marketers need to watch out for, though, is the reverse neuromarketing effect of sexy advertising – as we reported in Sex Doesn’t Sell?, sexual images and situations can actually reduce brand recall. (That research compared recall of ads running on sexy television shows with those on tamer fare.)

In short, for products where bikini-clad babes represent an appropriate marketing strategy (I’ll let you be the judge of what those product categories are!), the place to put them is at the point of sale. I’d use them in ads more distant from the point of purchase, like television commercials or print ads, only if they are an integral and long-running element of the brand strategy (e.g., Hooters restaurants).

  1. Drew says

    An easy way of using this effect for long-term advantage would be to immediately follow up with a tactic known to have a long-term effect.
    For example, hit him with the bikini babe and then immediately ask him to make a public pronouncement. This would influence him to stick with his choice over a longer term.

    But why isn’t anyone doing any studies showing how to influence women?

  2. Mark says

    An interesting study would be that of the automobile industry. I use to look at car magazines that my grandfather collected in the 60s-70s and they certainly used sex (bikinis) to advertise new cars in those magazines. I remember phones from car shows that featured very scantily clothed woman. For the past couple of years I have gone to the Detroit Auto Show and women are still used to present cars but in business suits. To me this seems to be a function of the auto industry realizing that the selling of automobile not no long just a mans game and they are striking out to the sensibilities of female consumers.

    Perhaps to study the effect of sex versus non-sex advertising, since it is obvious the market has changed in the auto industry, would be hard to measure. I have often wondered about it and think it would be an interesting study.

  3. Sim only says

    I don’t think it’ll make your conversionrate high.. People will be distracted I guess

  4. Bikini Babe says

    I definitely agree with Mark!

  5. Rich and Co. says

    Believe it was some Brits (Buyology) that “studied” sex vs fear as motivator and fear won out hands down. We see that in the media where “feed the fear” is the main editorial strategy. We’ve seen that in our client work as well.

    Erotic triggers apparently do get arousal and the brain and behavior going but they are (as women have always known) effectively impossible to channel or direct. Erotic triggering then produces diffuse and unfocused behaviors. Not much use in getting people to buy more.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Actually, while the “mating mind arousal” might be unfocused, that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. See A Pretty Woman Beats a Good Loan Deal.


  6. Rich and Co. says

    Yes, we had heard about the bank offer effect. There is also testosterone and erotic triggering effects in financial risk taking. Would have to dig for the cite.

    Also not trivial are the triggering effects in ad decision makers — likely Type-A, high testosterone guys themselves.

    We may be misstating however — it is likely be dopamine triggering and not testosterone. The gender specific hormones are genetically set in the womb and not situation triggered or dependent. So a high testosterone guy (there are hi-T women as well) will be more quickly and easily triggered by dopamine. The testosterone level is like a personality trait that predicts aggressive social behavior and some other characteristics.

    Dopamine, BTW, it is important to understand for us neuromarketers, is not triggered by the stimuli but in milliseconds, unconsciously before the stimuli is experienced — by anticipation. Again, women can attest to that in guys. Yikes!

  7. freya bikini says

    I also agree with you mark, that would be very interesting to see the results of that study.

  8. OSeñorita says

    This is an interesting blog. Glad I found this site now that I’m into marketing online.

    I agree with Drew. Any studies on how to influence women shoppers?? What triggers women to buy aside from the word SALE? 😀

  9. […] gently mocked my half of the species for being far-too-easily influenced by female images. Babes in bikinis alter male behavior, but it doesn’t always take that much. Simply including a photo of an […]

  10. Joseph Devlin says

    There was a study published very recently by David Shanks and colleagues at UCL that investigated whether looking at pictures of attractive women increases men’s’ willingness to purchase. In a nutshell, the answer was “no.” What made this study particularly important was they they tested 1600 participants in 8 different experiments — far more than any other study in the area. The authors conclude by “[questioning] the claim that romantic primes can influence [behaviour]”. Makes me worry that studies like the bikini one are using too small samples that may strongly bias the results.

    The original paper is available here: and Neuroskeptic blogged about it:

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Very interesting stuff, Joseph. It seems like reproducibility problems are affecting a lot of research in social science. It’s a problem when you are trying to build on that research to solve problems. You would think that the combination of statistical techniques and peer review would be enough to combat anything this side of outright fraud, but apparently that’s not the case.

  11. Brain Molecule Marketing says

    this is special pleading for pop neuromarketing. Independent of any single study the theory of primes and related models is debunked by lot of other lab studies about behavior and the brain, duh…

    Don’t fall for silly theories that violate animal and human biology and behavioral findings…

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