Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

“Does sex sell?” is an empirical question

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

We keep hearing the old chestnut “sex sells”, and we hear it most especially when we complain about how some item of geek culture is sexist – video game bosoms or ridiculous outfits on superheroines, for example – as if that was some kind of excuse for objectification.

Does sex sell? Does sexism sell? Where’s the evidence for this? I’ve got moderately good Google-fu but haven’t been easily able to turn up much in the way of useful information or anything more rigorous than blog rants and newspaper opinion pieces. Can anyone answer this one, or point me to some useful resources? Where is the real, empirical evidence for this? Are advertisers and content providers (comic artists, game producers etc.) operating on an outdated or scientifically unjustified model?

I’ve read quite a lot of your basic feminist literature. I’d like some science, or at least some vaguely scientific numbers. Can anyone help?

What do you think?

18 thoughts on ““Does sex sell?” is an empirical question

  1. imayer

    I would like to make the argument (also) that there is decidedly a difference between implying buying our product will get you laid and implying that 1. women are prizes you can win by buying our product, and then you can just pick one off the shelf on the way out of the store and 2. our entire market demographic is straight men and it could not possibly occur to us that women would be consumers or buy our product.

    I mention this because even if you find empirical evidence about sex in commercials , it probably won’t make that distinction.

    It’s also difficult to determine if “sex sells” because we need to be able to formulate an ad that is ‘equivalent’ excepting that it doesn’t use sex as a motivator. And simply removing inuendo might artificially render an ad that doesn’t imply any reward, rather than an ad that implies reward in the form of sex.

  2. Cthandhs

    I’ve thought for a long time that this whole “sex sells” thing is rubbish. Recently, I saw something that brought it to my attention. When Rush Limbaugh lost his advertisers over his comments about Sandra Fluke, the main reason seemed to be that advertisers didn’t want to lose their female market share. Evidently women, 25 to 55, make up the majority of U.S. buying power (e.g. they make the decisions about where household money is spent). When people say “Sex Sells” they’re not talking about well muscled men in teeny bikinis. I think we still get a lot of sex in adverts because the idea is that women won’t be turned off by a sexy commercial, but men might be attracted, a gamble that is believed to pay off when targeting men (e.g. video games, cheap beer and Go Daddy). The problem for these advertisers, is that women do notice, are turned off and have found a huge voice in social media.

    As an aside, I work in digital marketing and I have never, never, ever, heard someone say “Well, I hate to put lingerie models all over this web site, but the numbers show a 3.4% increase in sales after lingerie-model-campaigns.” I can say however, that our creatives are predominantly male and I have heard them gleefully joke about the pleasures of doing “market research” on the Victoria’s Secret website.

    1. Elizabeth

      Ew. Just, ew.

      Jessica Ivins, a UX designer I respect quite a lot, has a talk about “shrink it and pink it” — i.e., the right way of thinking about gender-based marketing (hint: it doesn’t involve pink).

    2. S.P.Zeidler

      It’s not “marketing people are horny males” (exclusively).
      I have an acquaintance who does social media marketing. She showed me an ad she was making for a hosting company. When I asked her why she tried to get rid of the potential customers whose procurement was women, she said there probably weren’t any anyway. Me pointing out that my employers’ procurement is populated majorly by women did not seem to change her mind.

      Sexism is not just what men do. Women are entirely capable of it too.

    3. Russell Coker

      In a recent discussion about DNS hosting on a sysadmin mailing list (where almost every subscriber regularly purchased such services and regularly advised other people about which to use) I pointed out the GoDaddy advertising. After that no-one had anything positive to say about GoDaddy.

      It seems that GoDaddy advertising is driving away the people who could potentially be their best customers.

      As well as being distasteful I consider the GoDaddy adverts to be an indication of a lack of quality. If they could make a great product then surely they would use the TV time to tell me how great it is!

  3. Bean

    I always wondered about this question as well, and while I can’t point you to the evidence, I can give you what I know.

    A few years ago, I was at the Penny Arcade Expo in the audience for a panel on Women in Gaming. There were 5 women on the panel: 3 from colleges with a background in feminist studies, 1 in marketing for a variety of products (among them games), and 1 producer from a local game developer.
    The issue was brought up by one of the women from the colleges, and she basically said that the idea that sex sells was rubbish. She was countered by the marketing woman, who cited metrics and sales numbers that proved the opposite. The previous woman backed down, and I think it can safely be assumed that she didn’t have any solid evidence to back up her statement.

    That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were areas where sex wasn’t as effective at selling a product – I think context is a very important factor, and that there isn’t going to be a universal answer for this.

    1. Carol Stabile

      I was the scholar on the panel and actually have a different memory. The marketing person (from Liquid Advertising) also added that although the addition of sexualized content (and I’m not sure what her example was — breasts? nudity?) increased the number of clickthroughs, those clickthroughs turned out not be people who went on to play the game. So people might have followed the link out of prurient curiosity, but they didn’t buy the company’s product.

      I think that this remains an empirical question that has yet to be answered, preferably by researchers independent of advertising.

  4. L

    Yeah, I don’t think it’s so much “let’s give this ad/media/material room to double as masturbatory fodder”, but rather that it just reinforces a very comfy status quo for straight dudes at the expense of everyone else, and anything that even hints at ignoring their privilege (not even with the purpose of actively undermining it), just makes men really, really uncomfortable. Couple that with the fact that men aren’t really allowed to emotionally sympathize with a character outside of the “man = violent non-sexual, female = passive fully-sexual, both completely heteronormative” paradigm, and you’ve got a whole population of dudes that don’t really know how to identify with a woman that isn’t there for them to want to have sex with. (And likewise, a population of women that don’t really know how to identify with a woman that isn’t there for them to sexually compare themselves to.)

  5. jlstrecker

    If you go to scholar.google.com and search for “sex sell”, there are some promising leads. I don’t have time to go over them myself, but hope that helps.

  6. Infophile

    I recall hearing of studies about this at some point, though I’m at a loss for finding them again. The conclusion I remember is that while sex does increase the chance someone will remember a commercial, it does nothing to increase the chance that they’ll actually remember what product was being advertised, so its actual effect on sales is minimal. I’ll do a bit of searching and see if I can come up with a citation for this.

  7. Roberta Guise

    I too did a quick search; found this article in Psychology Today http://bit.ly/aofWRX and another in a publication called Neuromarketing http://bit.ly/4nkmd2

    Both articles discuss research that shows ad recall is worse when sex is the primary focus. So to answer your question: no, sex doesn’t sell.

    Bob Parsons, are you listening? How much business is Go Daddy losing because you insist on focusing your brand around sex?

    1. GarrickWinter

      That’s actually a pretty neat study – I found the idea of making heatmaps of the ads interesting.

      The authors also distinguish between “soft” and “hard” sexual content in ads, and claim that women are just as influenced by “soft” content as men are by sexual content in general. It would be interesting to know what they mean by that, and what materials they used, as they never really say what ads they use and which they consider hard, soft and neutral.

  8. Shannon LC Cate

    A lot of things “sell” but there are other questions to ask when marketing something, like who do you want to sell it to and how do you want to brand yourself? There’s a lot more than basic sales data to consider.

  9. Roberta Guise

    Another relevant fact: only 3% of creative directors in ad agencies nationwide are women, meaning women have next to no clout when it comes to creative decisions about the theme of an ad.

  10. Andrew Ducker

    I do remember seeing the editor of some tech magazine (T3, or something similar) say that sales of the magazine were about 30% higher when there as a picture of a sexy woman on the cover.

    I’d love to see some decent research done on this.

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