Sex in Advertising: Does it Sell?

We're surrounded by advertisements that desperately compete for our attention. Everywhere we look, we find ourselves inevitably drawn to images of scantily clad attractive men and women that are supposed to somehow inspire us to purchase products they endorse. Sure, this attention-getting strategy is popular. But, is it effective?

Sex appeal can increase the effectiveness of an ad or commercial because it attracts the customer's attention. It's human nature to be curious about sex. A pair of long legs on a billboard is more likely to catch (and hold) a guy's attention than a puppy, regardless of how cute it may be. Even women are drawn to them, perhaps with the desire of having goddess-like legs.

However, misuse of sex appeal can be costly. Many campaigns deemed offensive have started brand boycotts that affect sales and damage brand reputation. Abercrombie & Fitch has been involved in several scandals, the latest from their most recent catalog entitled "XXX Wet, Hot Summer Fun." On April 18, 2002, only a week after the catalog hit the stores, the Illinois State Senate passed a resolution condemning A&F's advertising tactics. This resolution, backed by several nonprofit organizations, suggests citizens and shareholders boycott Abercrombie's products and to take a stand against the company's marketing strategies. Although sexy images in catalogs are not at all uncommon, "XXX Wet, Hot Summer Fun" featured naked boys and girls frolicking in natural settings. Not quite appropriate for an apparel catalog targeted at teenagers.

Sex in advertising has stirred controversy for many years, an advertiser must be careful when incorporating it in a campaign. Great advertisers consider not only the attention-getting power of an advertisement or commercial, but also what kind of emotional response it provokes in customers. Studies show that the attractiveness of the endorsing model provokes positive responses. Nudity and graphic erotic content, while still increasing consumer's attention, doesn't really generate positive feelings among viewers. In other words, advertisers must be careful to avoid the "cheap shot," which may negatively affect a brand's image.

To avoid that, the sexual content in advertising must be appropriate to the product category and have a proper underlying message. In 2000, Heineken launched the "It's All About the Beer" campaign. One spot, called "The Premature Pour," shows a beautiful seductive woman pouring Heineken into a glass. When a guy across the bar responds by pouring his own, he nervously pours too fast and spills foam all over the table and himself. The sexual content is implicit, yet direct. The sexual reference in this and other spots in the campaign worked, causing sales to rise 13% in the first two quarters of 2002. However, Steve Davis (VP of marketing in Heineken USA), claims that, "Provocative is a very good place to be, as long as we're not inflammatory. But the spots also work for a different reason. From the tag line to the plot, they are about a desire for Heineken. Our ads make the beer the hero."

Sex sells, yes, but only when used "in good taste." As marketers we must think not only in getting customers' attention for the short term, but also in building a brand reputation that will yield long-term results.

Mark Levit is managing partner of Partners & Levit Advertising and a professor of marketing at New York University. Partners & Levit's clients include Procter & Gamble, UnitedHealth Group, and GE Commercial Finance. For more information call 212-696-1200 or visit http://www.partnerslevit.com.

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