There was quite a reaction to our recent article New Studies Make It Official: Sex Doesn’t Sell. That’s not surprising, considering the topic: the relentless trope of sex in advertising. Some marketers even emailed me objecting to a point to the research; they even presented data from advertising campaigns where sexual imagery and content bolstered a brand.

Their statistics were sound, I must admit, so what is going on? Does the babe or stud holding your beloved product work or not? Out of work actors and checkbook-holding CMO’s want to know.

I would contend, based on the studies I cited, that sex still doesn’t sell. Having said that, I can accept that at one point sex did potentially sell. Let me expand, specifically by expanding on one of the studies mentioned in the previous article.

The coupling of sex and big data

why sex doesn

The expansion comes from the insights of a recent Newsweek article, written by the authors of the cited Psychology Bulletin study in the previous article: Robert Lull and Brad Bushman.

To support their initial analysis, Lull and Bushman took sex in advertising to big data levels. They conducted a meta-analysis—or quantitative review—of existing studies on the impact of sex and violence in advertising. They processed 53 studies that qualified for inclusion, involving a total of 8,489 participants.

According to the article, this the sampling of what they found:

  • Brands advertised alongside violent media content were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably and less likely to be purchased than those advertised in nonviolent contexts

  • Brands advertised using sexual themes were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonsexual images

  • As the intensity of sexual ad content increased (from suggestive poses to full frontal nudity), memory, attitudes and buying intentions decreased

  • There were no significant effects of sexual ads or violent ads on memory or buying intentions

  • However, when media content and ad content were congruent (eg, violent ads in violent programs, nonviolent ads in nonviolent programs), memory improved and buying intentions increased.

In the end, Lull and Bushman stand by the notion that sexual (and violent) programs and ads do not increase brand value. The exception, they admit, would be when media content and ad content occurred together; however, these measures of ad effectiveness were either insignificant or actually somewhat negative. The authors furthermore admit there is much research to be done when it comes to the sexual advertising on the internet, but as things now stand…

Does that settle the issue of sex in advertising?

The Divorce of Sex and Human Awareness

sex doesnt sell and why

As mentioned, I could certainly accept the idea that at one point sex in advertising worked effectively for brands. Perhaps the game has changed in this digital age where consumers are savvier than ever in filtering media missives. In fact, there are theories that support a paradigm change:

The Evolutionary Theory

This theory is proposed in the Newsweek article by Lull and Bushman. In short, the theory states that our minds are hardwired to be attentive to sex and violence. They were a vital way of life for our ancestors. As the authors state:

Attending to violent cues prevented our evolutionary ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators, while attending to sexual cues attuned our evolutionary ancestors to potential opportunities for reproduction.

The problem is that the human attention span is now focused on other, more cerebral notions, as we continue to evolve. Sex and violence capture our attention, but they ultimately don’t keep it when presented alongside other competing messages.


There are many studies claiming that exposure to sex and violence ultimately desensitizes the human mind.

I am not going argue any moral grounds in this article. Nevertheless, it simply makes sense that the more competing sexual imagery being broadcast the less effective it will serve a specific brand. As qSample has presented: 5 minutes is the average attention span of a person (dropping from 12 minutes in the course of the last ten years). There are simply more choices, more media bombardment, and less room to make a connection with consumers.

Believe it or not, even sex can be watered-down in the human consciousness.

Conservative Nation

The U.S. has become more progressive in the last few years, according to Gallup. However, Gallup also states that the country still tilts heavily towards more conservative values, a trend that occurred as the economy soured in blue-collar states after the 2008 economic crash.

The media may be shelling consumers with sexual imagery and content, but it makes sense there would be resistance by a more traditional population more accustomed to being frugal in a new economy.

With all of this in mind, it’s reasonable to understand why sex doesn’t sell (even if, according to the emails I got, it once sold well years ago in well-planned campaigns).

Could sex sell again in the future?

Perhaps. But at the moment it’s certain that sex is formidable for seducing consumer attention, but rather limp when it comes to actually promoting a brand.