Women are turned off by sexually explicit images in advertisements. Unless, that is, the item being advertised is very precious. And valuable. And rare. Like, maybe, a once a year type gift.
At least, that’s the findings of a new study by an international group of marketing professors. Kathleen D. Vohs, Jaideep Sengupta and Darren W. Dahl used made-up advertisements for watches to test a theory in sexual economics that women want sex to be seen as something special, or at least not cheap. Sexual economic theory is “probably the least romantic theory about sex you’ll ever have learned,” says Vohs, who’s a researcher at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “Countries, cultures, and individuals treat female sexuality as if it has value and is precious.”
Her team showed men and women different wristwatch ads—some with a saucy image, others with a majestic mountain range. In some of the ads the watch was priced at $10 and others at $1,250.
Before they viewed the ads, the participants had to memorize a 10-digit code. This was to try to distract them and not have them overthink their reaction to the watch marketing material. After reciting the code, the participants were asked how they felt about the ads.
Women who saw the sexually explicit cheap watch ad responded to it negatively; they were upset, disgusted, unpleasantly surprised or angry. Women who saw the sexually explicit pricey watch ad were less negative. (This might explain why there was little backlash over Charlize Theron’s seductive ads for Chanel, but there was over Danica Patrick’s racy ads for GoDaddy, a discount website hosting platform.) When the ad had the image of mountains, women didn’t seem to favor either watch.
For the men, the price of the watch did not change the way they rated the sexually explicit ads. Whether the watch was intended for men or women did not change the results either. This might explain why magazines that have tried to create premium porn haven’t really found their audience.
Although the findings, which were published in Psychological Science, were exactly what the researchers predicted, they were nonetheless a little taken aback. “We were able to get these effects even when participants weren’t actually in a purchasing scenario. Just a quick exposure to an ad was enough for theories of sexual economics to kick in,” says Vohs. “This suggests that the process happens at a deep, intuitive level.”
While this study is fascinating, high end advertisers might, before adding even more semi-disrobed women to their campaigns, might want to heed the advice attributed to Jef Richards, former president of the American Academy of Advertising: “In advertising, sex sells, but only if you’re trying to sell sex.”