When a women sees an overtly sexual advertisement, studies have found, her gut reaction tends to be negative. There’s a psychological explanation for this, and it’s called sexual economics theory: women want sex to be something rare and valuable.
But this got researchers at the University of Minnesota thinking: What if the product being sold, itself, was rare and valuable? Would a sexy advertisement appeal more to women than a non-sexy one in that case?
To find out, the researchers brought female undergraduate students into the lab to gauge their gut reactions to wristwatch ads. First the researchers distracted participants by asking them to memorize a 10-digit number. While the students’ brains were busy with the memory task, researchers showed participants a series of advertisements. Half the ads featured sexy photos of women, while the other half showed stunning mountain landscapes. Within these categories, half the watches were priced at $10 and half at $1,250.
Then the participants were asked to recall the number (to clear their minds) before rating their spontaneous reactions to the ads. For each ad, participants rated how happy/energized/interested it made them feel as well as how upset/disgusted/angry.
The Value of Sex
The researchers found that women’s strongest negative feelings were toward sexy ads for cheap watches. When those same sexually charged images were paired with hefty price tags, however, the women were less averse. Researchers say this is because these latter ads validate the idea that sex, like the expensive watch, is exclusive and worth an investment.
That being said, women had more negative feelings toward all sex-driven ads than they did toward ads featuring mountain scenes.
A group of male participants, on the other hand (who were only shown the sexy ads, by dint of the study’s design), didn’t express significantly different feelings about cheap-sexy ads versus expensive-sexy ads. The researchers say this is because sex and high worth are not as innately connected for men as they are for women.
The take-away message of the paper, published in Psychological Science, is that for women, sex only sells for high-end products, and even then it’s not the best bet. But somehow it seems unlikely that advertisers will take note…
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