For Women, Sex Sells—But Only For Expensive Goods

By Breanna Draxler | December 10, 2013 2:06 pm

Oh la la! That is one special and valuable watch. I mean, woman!

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?

Commercial Break

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…


Image credit: Inga Ivanova/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • carolannie

    Well, start with a preconceived notion ( There’s a psychological explanation for this, and it’s called sexual
    economics theory: women want sex to be something rare and valuable.), do research, and use it to validate your preconceived notion…How do these people KNOW that women want sex to be something rare and valuable? And how do they KNOW that women reacted positively to the “sexy” ad with the high priced item because of this? How about women regularly see high priced items in ads with sexy women in women’s magazines, hence may be predisposed to think of this as a valid way to sell high priced items (women are trained to associate sleek sexy high priced items with sleek sexy women, and the other type of ad is jarring to them)?

    • Hibernia86

      I think it is an indisputable fact that reproduction costs more for women than men (9 months of pregnancy vs a short time to produce more sperm) so it is understandable that women would be more selective about how much sex they wanted to have because of this. Yes they have birth control pills, but even today it is usually the man that initiates sex in relationships, the man who asks out the woman on first dates, the man who is supposed to be the one to romance the woman and do kind things for her. While this study wasn’t the best designed, I think their study area could very well be true.

      • AmericanMuse

        That’s because men have been manipulated by women to assist them in their singular reproductive zeal all along. Men don’t possess that single-minded urge to reproduce.offspring.

  • Rebecka Öfverholm

    Maybe women react nagatively to ads with sexy women because we are tired of being objectified and sexualized? And did it ever occur to the researchers to use ads with sexy MEN, since the audience is female (and supposedly mostly heterosexual)? It seems they are equating “sexy” with “sexy women”.

    • Thomas

      Women don’t like to be “sexualized” or “objectified”? You obviously have never heard of evolution, or understand the mammalian process of mating and procreation. There’s a balance that must be struck between our psych feelings of being respected and needing the ritual of attraction and mating – this is vastly different for precisely the reason that as organisms we are variations of attempts for adaptivity, to the end of the survival of our species. Feminists are just as bad as a misogynist.

      • Rebecka Öfverholm

        Thank you Thomas, for telling me what women want. You obviously know better than us.

        • Hibernia86

          Just because you are a woman does not automatically mean you are correct on all gender issues. You still need to provide logical arguments. You simply rejected Thomas’s argument because he was male, which is a sexist way to respond.

          • Thomas

            Well said.

        • Thomas

          You’re most welcome, seeing how you thought that you speak for all women, and all. It’s my pleasure to help a fellow Hominid/ Great Ape.

          • girl

            Trust me, all women feel that way.

        • girl

          That response is just awesome.

    • cynner

      You got it–ads with sexy men!

    • Ella

      I second this. When selling “sexy images” to women, you need sexy MEN! We need to see far more sexy men in ads and the media in general!

    • Hibernia86

      Your post does not explain why the women reacted differently to sexy ads with expensive items vs sexy ads with inexpensive items. The goal of the study was to test how women react to expressions of female sexuality to determine whether it undermines their own value in the sexual marketplace. They wanted to see whether having sexy female ads made women feel like they had harsher competition in the dating pool since the standards for what is sexy were higher. Having sexy men wouldn’t answer that question. I agree that this study isn’t necessarily the best designed, but I think you are missing the point of the research.

    • Hibernia86

      I think the title of this article misled people about what this study was really about.

  • MyKitchenandI

    I have to wonder as well, why sexy women in the ads? Isn’t it comparing apples and oranges to rate men’s reaction to a sexy woman in an ad versus a woman’s reaction to the same ad?

    • Hibernia86

      No. The goal is to study the reaction of men and women to female sexuality in the media and to attempt to discover reasons for this. You couldn’t do that if you switched the genders in the ad. I think the title of this article misled people as to what this study was really about.

  • liyi

    The fact is that, a large number of women think they can not be beautiful and elegant as what shows in the ads.

  • cdashnaw

    This headline was as titillating as these ads! The research showed more than anything that sex doesn’t sell in ads if the audience is female. I’m disappointed in you, Discover.


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