Sex Doesn’t Sell?


A new study suggests that ads on sexy television shows don’t perform as well as those on tamer fare, and that advertisers need to look beyond the audience size and demographics in planning ad placements. APR’s Marketplace radio show reports,

The study placed 18 to 31-year-old college students in front of two shows: Sex and the City and the comedy Malcolm in the Middle.
Both screenings included commercial breaks. The researchers found those watching Malcolm in the Middle had better product recall.

The study concluded that sex doesn’t sell. On TV, it can keep people from remembering commercials. (Sex doesn’t sell after all.)

The dilemma for advertisers is that shows with sexual or romantic content often have higher ratings than other shows. We think this finding would make for an interesting neuromarketing study. Putting the subjects in an fMRI scanner while performing a similar experiment would show which areas of the brain were being activated by the television show, and how that affected the brain activation by identical commercials. That data would open a real window on how to target shows by content. Perhaps some ads will resist the apparent recall-damping effect on the sexier shows.

We also wonder whether it’s less the romantic/sexy content and more some other characteristic of the show. An intense drama like 24 would be a particularly interesting test, in my opinion. With guns shooting, buildings exploding, and Kiefer Sutherland in peril (not to mention Los Angeles and the entire nation) before every commrcial break, one would think the effect on commercial recall might be signficant. (One other commercial characteristic of 24 – is there any show on TV that makes it easier to leave the room completely during a commercial break than 24, with its loud, ominous, percussive fade-outs and lead-ins?)

We look forward to hearing more about this study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, and further investigations of the neuroscience underlying the depressed ad recall for the sexy shows.

  1. Robert Gorell says

    Great post… love the blog.

    I’d like to see a study on whether sexually-charged ads sell better or worse during specific shows. The study in question seems to say more about whether LACK OF sex sells (presumably non-sexualized product) better than shows promising sexual content.

    So, does sex really sell, or is there a gender difference between how an audience is engaged watching Sex and the City processes the ads? I’d wager that a Girls Gone Wild commercial might do better for one show than it does for another. Certainly, their media buyers don’t have to blink to know the answer to that one.

    I’m just not sure that this study isn’t just a dressed-up focus group. To do it right, you’d probably have to go to a country like Amsterdam where sex isn’t shocking to anyone but tourists (particularly prude Americans, or those pretending to be such).

    The funny thing about selling sex is that even those who study it–if they’re at all honest with themselves and/or their data–must be left wondering who’s really being sold after all, and on what.

    [Btw, your ‘rules’ link is broken. It deleted my first version of this post when I clicked over.]

  2. ilker says

    This is an interesting study.. I always thought that sex sells because we are all nothing but mammals! =)

  3. Utbildning says

    A paradoxical conclusion the APR show is delivering and believing in ? that Sex doesn?t sell. A little bit further down it is concluded that ?The dilemma for advertisers is that shows with sexual or romantic content often have higher ratings than other shows.? I guess that this means that Sex sells 🙂 at least when it comes to products such as sitcoms.

    That sex does not sell is an erroneous notion. It is just a matter of understanding how to add sex & beauty in order to sell your product.

    Sex and romance has been inserted audio-visually into ?Sex and the City? and the ratings for that sitcom are speaking for themselves. Obviously sex is selling that product.

    If you want to sell your product by adding the sex ingredient then you have to insert sex and beauty into your commercial and not rely on the potential sex appeal of the sitcom where the commercial is inserted in! How else would you be able to sell using sex?

    A sexy commercial inserted into Sex and the City will, on average, sell better than a non-sexy commercial. This has been shown and replicated in research a number of times (see for instance; Julander C-R & Soderlund M, 2003, The decorative model in ads revisited in the relationship marketing era, proceedings from the 32nd EMAC, Glasgow)

    What is the most remarkable in this story is that the researchers who conducted the study came to the conclusion that sex doesn?t sell. Truly remarkable! However, the fact that the study was published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology tells us that it wasn?t (most likely) marketers who conducted the research. Marketers know better. They also understand the underlying logic and how to go about when you want to use sex & beauty to sell your product.

  4. Chuck McKay says

    Late night advertisers have known for years that the easiest way to get response for their ads is to air them inside a program in which the ad is more interesting than the program.

    Isn’t this study simply an affirmation that a sexually charged program holds attention better than a sexually charged ad?

  5. Roger Dooley says

    That’s one possibility, Chuck. I guess it depends on whether Sex in the City is more attention-grabbing than Malcolm in the Middle. Perhaps the shows are equally entertaining, but the racier show is somehow more distracting.

    It would be interesting to compare a third show, perhaps a riveting thriller like “24.”

  6. Dayna Marcum says

    Good post. Sex will always sell something that’s worth less than $10 at a garage sale. If we’re selling the fountain of youth, a quick fix, or something that is used & abused – sex is the only thing to sell. The audience is usually skin-deep, and can be fickle and selfish. However, if the product/service is looking for a loyal audience, message branding of “the greater good” is sure to breed long-term, repeat customers right off the bat.

  7. Richard says

    We’re surrounded by advertisements that desperately compete for our attention. Everywhere we look, we find ourselves inevitably drawn to images of scantily clad attractive men and women that are supposed to somehow inspire us to purchase products they endorse. Simple but that’s sex and sex does sell!

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