Why Turning Up the Heat Might Turn Down the Sales

call me VSWe’ve all heard the old adage, “sex sells.” But is steamy advertising really all that useful? It turns out that it’s easy for racy ads to fall short, and alienate potential consumers in the bargain. Let’s take a look at why you might want to leave the shirtless hunks at home.

Sexy Ads Aren’t Memorable (Especially for Women)

While an ad with a super attractive model in skimpy clothes or the promise that a product will help you snag the object of your desires might make an impression, consumers say that sexy ads simply don’t make much of an impression on them.

A recent study by Lab 42 found that when they asked consumers which ads were “most memorable,” only 8% of those surveyed said that sexy ads stuck with them. Compare that to the 71% of consumers who said that they were more likely to remember a product featured in a funny ad. 

If you’re marketing to women, specifically, chucking the sexy campaign might be an especially smart idea. Out of that 8%, over 92% were men, meaning that the vast, vast majority of women aren’t particularly interested in shirtless dudes asking, “How zesty do you want it?” (Thanks, Kraft.)

From Sexy to Sexist

An unfortunate reality of marketing is that it often relies on stereotyping and offensive imagery, and that comes out in sex-based advertising, especially. Ads targeted to men tend to invoke images of hypermasculinity, featuring aggression and violence, or otherwise paint men as kind of foolish and obsessed with women. And the women in these ads tend to have no purpose other than to throw themselves at men or be otherwise objectified.

Just take a look at this Hot Pockets commercial, which isn’t even that awful as these things go. I’ll let you figure out exactly what that bite of hot pocket is supposed to call to mind.

Inherently sexist? Not by itself, of course, but no ad campaign exists in a vacuum, and the girl-can’t-resist-guy trope has been extensively played out in entertainment, in popular media, and in the marketing sphere. Pretty much just about every other fantasy trope has seen enough airtime, too.

Backlash From Consumers

Finally, a steamy ad always runs the risk of causing backlash from consumers. Sometimes, this can be as simple as some consumers not wanting to have their kids or themselves exposed to sexual imagery, which is enough to make any marketing team want to think twice about launching a campaign that’s going to alienate more conservative audiences.

Of course, there’s more specific backlash, too. Take Victoria’s Secret’s latest attempt to market to young teens with an underwear line featuring bejeweled sayings like “Call Me,” “Dare You,” and “Feeling Lucky?” Parents are understandably up in arms about the sexualization of young girls, which is an increasingly significant problem in the advertising world. Is that a trend you want to hop in on for a quick sell? Probably not.

Does Sex Sell?

It’s true that you might be able to grab consumers’ attention with a sexy ad campaign, but using that type of imagery as your main strategy is risky at best, for the simple reason that it isn’t that effective. When you factor in the very fine line between something that appeals to customers and something that offends them, the risk of associating your brand with a sexist or otherwise negative image increases. With that in mind, it might be time to try a new approach.

Has your business ever employed a risque ad campaign? What were the results like?

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Beans graduated from Smith College in 2011 with a BA in History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and has worked as a farmer, a cook on a food truck, and an archival assistant. Outside of writing and editing for CEM, Beans enjoys reading voraciously, watching space documentaries, and baking vegan treats. Currently, Beans lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

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