Sex sells, and a new study of magazine ads over the last three decades shows some things never change. Madison Avenue is tapping into our carnal desires like never before.
"Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective," said researcher Tom Reichert, professor and head of the department of advertising and public relations in the University of Georgia (UGA). "Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information so ads with sexual content get noticed."
The message to the consumer is simple: you buy this product, you get this result. That might be the message of an ad for lawn fertilizer, and then again it might be the message in a cologne ad. One, of course, is more likely to feature sex than the other.
"Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy," Reichert said. "But, brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguable, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret are not much different than Hanes or Vassarette, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as ‘sexy,' and some customers want that."
20 percent of ads used sex
Looking at 3,232 full-page ads published in 1983, 1993 and 2003 in popular magazines Cosmopolitan, Redbook,Esquire, Playboy,Newsweek and Time, researchers found sexual imagery in 20 percent of the ads. Using sex to sell everything from alcohol to banking services has increased over the years: 15 percent of ads used sex to sell in 1983; that percentage grew to 27 percent in 2003.
Ads were categorized based on the models' clothing, or lack thereof, and physical contact between models. The researchers found that more ads feature sexual images.
But the aforementioned fertilizer ad doesn't use a sexy model. Ads that have gotten by over the years without selling sex by and large have not adopted it lately. Rather, Reichert says the increase in sexual ad content is found in alcohol, entertainment and beauty ads. In short, the products that used sex to sell in the past are using more sex to sell today.
The study also showed sex is primarily used to sell low-risk products purchased on impulse.
Where you won't find sexy ads
"Sex is not as effective when selling high-risk, informational products such as banking services, appliances and utility trucks," he said.
Out of 18 product categories, the study found those most often using sexual imagery in advertising were health and hygiene at 38 percent; beauty, 36 percent; drugs and medicine, 29 percent, clothing, 27 percent; travel, 23 percent; and entertainment, 21 percent.
"In almost every study I've seen, sexual content gives a purchase advantage in such instances," Reichert said.
Products not using sex in their ads were charitable organizations and computer companies. Not surprisingly, women are used to sell products most often when pitching sex. In ads sampled from 2003, 92 percent of beauty ads that contained models were female. Just under half the ads did not contain models.
With the exception of entertainment advertising, females overwhelming occupy the pages of sex-selling advertisements. Of the 38 percent of provocative health and hygiene advertisements that feature models, 31 percent feature females and 7 percent feature males.
"Perhaps more important, this analysis shows that the proportion for alcohol ads in 2003 increased to about one sexual ad for every three ads," Reichert said. "Using sex to sell products such as alcohol and tobacco is a moral issue."
Reichert said this upward trend in erotic ads is a reflection of society. After all, we are bombarded with sex, it seems, day and night and it takes more to get our attention.
"In the early 1900s, exposed arms and ankles of female models generated the same level of arousal as partially nude models do today,” Reichert said. “We can see during our lifetimes the changes in sexually explicit content on television, movies, books and other forms of media beyond just advertising."