Sex, Lies, and Our Secret Motivators


sexy-womanHere’s news that probably won’t shock you: sex is at the top of our unconscious minds. And, when marketers ask us, we won’t come close to admitting it.

A fascinating new study by Young & Rubicam provides insights into what we say vs. what we really think. The firm, in conjunction with Adelphi University psychologist Joel Weinberger, used implicit association testing to compare what consumers in the U.S., China, and Brazil said was important to them to what was subconsciously important. (To learn more about this kind of test and even take some yourself, check out Harvard’s Project Implicit.)

Sex and the Global Brain

Perhaps not surprisingly, although “sexual satisfaction” was rated at #14 out of 16 total categories by consumers in the three global markets, it emerged as #1 in the unconscious testing. Geoffrey Miller, a prof specializing in evolutionary psychology and author of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, probably has a big smile on his face when he sees these results. They certainly seem to bear out his thesis that a huge amount of our behavior is driven by “mating” instincts, even though most of our activities have little to do with actual sex.

“Wealth,” another category people might be inclined to express disinterest in when asked, shot from #16 to #5.

Americans: Not So Helpful?

US: conscious vs. unconscious values
In the US, “maintaining security” edged out sex for the top spot. “Helpfulness,” meanwhile took the biggest dive in the survey. Although US consumers ranked it #1 when asked, it slid to the very bottom, #16, in the non-conscious rankings. Suprisingly, Chinese consumers consciously rated helpfulness lower, #9, but it rose to #3 when measured unconsciously.

Two Big Implications for Marketers

The first takeaway from this study is no surprise to Neuromarketing readers: as I state in nearly every speech I give, people can’t, or won’t, accurately answer surveys if the questions go beyond the simplest factual topics. Relying on asking people what they think is important in their lives, or about your product, is practically guaranteed to produce bogus results. (For more on this, see my Forbes post Why So Much Market Research Sucks.)

The second takeaway is that if you believe the non-conscious testing results are accurate and meaningful in identifying the subconscious values of consumers, you should consider incorporating one or more of the important elements in your marketing campaigns. While lots of marketers have figured out that sex is a potent sales tool (even if consumers feign disinterest), the emergence of “security” as a top concern for US consumers might be relevant for some product categories. Similarly, “tradition” emerged as the #1 non-conscious interest in Brazil, even though it was consciously ranked at #12. Brands and products that appeal to a sense of history or custom might prove unexpectedly effective in that market.

This study may not be the definitive word on the unconscious motivation of global consumers, but it certainly shows why marketers are interested in using neuromarketing tools to find out what’s really on consumer minds.

  1. Ernest Barbaric says

    As much as we want to fight it, or put up a facade publicly – it always comes down to the basic human motivations. This article is a great reminder to peel back and remember the [uncomfortable] basics.

    Your Forbes article is definitely on point – and it’s great to see these ideas get more exposure. As marketers, we often give too much weight to surveys and even worse, our own skewed interpretation of the results.

    Thanks for sharing the study link as well – this will make great discussion fodder for my class!

    – ernest.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Ernest. I think market researchers are like the guy looking for his lost keys under the streetlight because the light was better there – they rely on surveys, focus groups, etc., because that’s all they have. At least up until the last few years…

  2. Mark says

    Art is definitely driven by mating instincts and a result of sexual selection evolution.

  3. Sanchit Khera says

    This research reminds me of Dan Ariely’s book about irrational decisions. A couple of college kids were analyzed for decision making during sexual arousal. They were told to watch erotic images and answer a few questions. Guys were more likely to make irrational decisions when aroused. Around 20-25 percent more. This could mean higher conversion rates for ecommerce and higher ctrs for banners

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ariely has done, and continues to do, great work that illuminates various aspects of human behavior. I actually mention that research in Brainfluence. And while the subjects in that study were far more aroused than a person flipping through a magazine or watching TV, it just the far end of a long spectrum. There are lots of subtle sexual cues that still have the power to change behavior. See, for example, A Pretty Woman Beats a Good Loan Deal and Bikinis, Babes, and Buying, to name just a few!

  4. Daimon says

    I just read the article and it’s ironic that having just demonstrated that ordinary surveys cannot be trusted they end it with an ordinary survey of attitudes. From the results they conclude there is a “Generation World” that defines success on its own terms not based on what others think, does not use age as part of its self-identification and so on. Those sound like values that might be consciously expressed but have a lower real belief factor. I wonder what the implicit results of this survey would have been.

  5. Laurence says

    I really enjoyed, as well as a few of the other articles I have read on this site.

    Is there an ongoing study into these things? For example, Once people are aware of the studies and consciously notice when these messages are used. Does it then change their behavior? I, for instance, have always accepted the rights that apps have asked for on my mobile devices, but since I am involved in neural network and big data projects, I start declining more apps and permissions on various platforms as it feels like I am being taken advantage of.

  6. Kevin Schulmanl says

    The premise that the only survey research that is reliable is that of simple, factual questions is belied by your relying on one set of survey data over another, neither of which is of the “simple, factual” variety.

    You argue we should act on the findings from the indirect association methodology but not the stated importance questions. I don’t disagree with the general assertion (though the description of the indirect methodology is non-existent so impossible to judge) but both sets of findings are based on asking people questions – i.e. attitudinal data.

    Your further assertion – in the Forbes post – that relying only on live-testing and behavior to dictate success/failure and presumably then infer motivation is dangerously off the mark. One thing you don’t get from in-market testing is “response” or data from the non-responders, which typically make up the vast majority of the target audience. For both groups you are stuck inferring motive, intent, needs, etc..

    I agree there is a ton of crappy market research out there like the kind you bought to get an answer on pricing. However, the broad-brush comment that all or most research is garbage is ignorant at best and dangerous if followed blindly.

    For example – and there are countless examples – pricing studies can be done that are radically cheaper, faster and more informative than in-market testing and at far lower risk to reputation and “opportunity cost”.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Kevin, I do agree that traditional research methods have their place and can be much less expensive than neuromarketing techniques. The riskiest areas are those that encourage dishonesty (topics like sex, alcohol, etc.) or that are very difficult to answer (why did you buy that truck?).

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  8. […] to them, but the truth was maintaining their safety was most important, followed closely by sexual satisfaction.  In both China and Brazil, however, sex took the subconscious top […]

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