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By Gary R.

We all know – or at least we’ve been told – that sex sells. But why does sex sell? In this brief article I will attempt to shed some light on the fundamental reason that sexism plays an integral role in advertising.

Let’s begin by examining a definition of sexism. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary sexism is behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

In the 1960s ads were chock full of images depicting a woman’s role in society as a stay-at-home mom with a life dedicated to cooking, cleaning, bearing children, and being beautifully dressed, made up, and waiting for her man to arrive home to be spoiled by her. Conversely men in ads were frequently depicted as the provider and figure of authority with women being subservient.

Fast-forward 50 years and sexism is still just as prevalent in advertising, if not more so, but the roles have changed dramatically. While there are still ads depicting the stay-at-home mom, you will also see ads that feature the stay-at-home dad – something that didn’t exist in advertising in the ’60s.

But what’s more prevalent today is the objectification of sex. Subtle, or not so subtle imagery or sexual innuendo that in many cases have little relation to the product at hand. For instance a recent Carl’s Jr. commercial [1] featured a woman walking next to a pool eating a burger. Ok great…Carl’s Jr. and burgers…that makes sense. It’s everything else in the ad that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As she’s walking she’s stripping her clothes off to reveal her bikini. The camera zooms in on her breasts, butt, and feet. Hordes of people all stop what they’re doing to stare at her. Men are undressing her with their eyes. Moms are covering the eyes of their little boys as she struts by in her high heels ravenously devouring a burger. Or how about the recent Old Spice commercial [2] featuring the muscular man in a towel… on a boat… with tickets “to that thing you like…” dripping diamonds from his hands… finally coming to rest on a white stallion on a beach. In this ad not only do we have a sexually objectified man, we have this man selling a men’s product to women while flagrantly illustrating the women to whom he’s selling to be shallow minded.

These are just two examples of the countless sexist ads that appear in every advertising medium. But why…why do we need half-naked women or men to sell burgers, soap, cars, soda, and nearly every other product? Does sex really sell?

According to several recent studies, yes, sex actually does sell. In one study, Brian Knutson and colleagues discovered that certain erotic images facilitate the activation of a part of our brain associated with experiencing warm fuzzy feelings. [3] As Ryan T. Howell, Ph.d., Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University, puts it “When you are exposed to erotic stimuli, a region deep within your brain – the nucleus accumbens – becomes activated. This is the part our brain that is ‘turned on’ when we experience positive emotions.” [4] The Knutson study showed that people are likely to spend more money while in this “activated” state.

Another study that supports the idea that sex sells was conducted by Dr. Ian Cook, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and colleagues. In this study they recorded electrical activity in the brains of participants while advertising images were shown. They found that images that utilized Logical Persuasion (LP) – facts, figures, and data – created more activity in areas of the brain related to decision making and emotional processing, whereas images that used Non-rational Influence (NI) – a sexy man or woman placed for no apparent reason – created less activity in those areas of the brain. According to Cook “These results suggest that the lower levels of brain activity from ads employing NI images could lead to less behavioral inhibition, which could translate to less restraint when it comes to buying products depicted in the NI advertisements.” [5] In other words, the less you think, the more you buy.

While this may be great news for advertisers and advertising companies looking for any possible angle to boost sales, I feel that it’s a great disservice to average consumers and society as a whole. I see this type of advertising as another cog in the wheel that is dumbing down, or numbing, society when what we need is more – not less – factual information that sparks rational thought and lively debate.

It seems the theory that sex sells has been tested and proven to be true. So the next time you have the urge to register a domain with GoDaddy after seeing Danica Patrick talk about her beaver [6], or rush out to buy a roll of paper towels after seeing Mr Brawny’s bulge [7], remember these words from Dr. Cook…“Watch your brain and watch your wallet.”


Works Cited

1. Carl's Jr. Advertisement. N.p., 2011. Web. <http://vimeo.com/22093189>.

2. Old Spice. Advertisement. N.p., 2010. Web. <http://oldspice.com/en-US/videos/video/22/theman-your-man-could-smell-like/?page=2>.

3. Brian Kuntson, G. Ellition Wimmer, Camelia M. Kuhnen and Piotr Winkielman (2008). Nucleus accumbens activation mediates the influence of reward cues on financial risk taking. NeuroReport, 19, 509-513.

4. Howell, Ryan T., Ph.D. “You Know That Sex Sells–Do You Know Why?” Physchology Today. N.p., 22 Aug. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

5. UCLA. Buyer Beware: Advertising May Seduce Your Brain, UCLA Researchers Say. UCLA Newsroom. N.p., 20 Sept. 2011. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

6. GoDaddy. Advertisement. N.p., 2008. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io8TDAElIw>.

7. Georgia-Pacific. Advertisement. N.p., 2007. Web. <http://www.adforum.com/creativework/ad/player/50519>.