Why Sexy Ads Don't Work

Ads featuring girls in bikinis aren't as effective as you'd think.

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Nov 2 2015, 5:00am

This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.

An Ohio State University study released this fall has found what may be making today's ad men mad. It turns out that "sex sells," long the maxim of an industry fixated on peddling us our basest instincts, may need its own rebranding. Robert B. Lull and Brad J. Bushman's survey—titled "Do Sex and Violence Sell?" and based on 53 experiments and 8,489 total participants—found that GoDaddy should reconsider putting its logos on girls in bikinis. Instead, "advertisers should consider the effects of media content, ad content, content intensity, and congruity to design and place more effective ads."

That seems like reasonable advice, until you turn on the TV and realize few advertisers are taking it. "As intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased," researchers found, explaining the chasm between staring at boobs and reading the logos on the T-shirts stretched across them. What's more, violent ads had an overall negative effect on buying intentions, and though Lull and Bushman haven't fully investigated the effects of product placement, the study found that the splatter-free mint-green Hyundai in the otherwise gooey world of The Walking Dead is probably little more than distracting.

But there is a caveat for "program/ advertisement congruity." The researchers conclude that even though there is "no overall effect of sexual ads or violent ads on buying intentions," they saw that "buying intentions were significantly more favorable when media were congruent." Think Cialis or Victoria's Secret commercials in between sex scenes on Scandal. As for shilling, say, feminine products by inconspicuously communicating that Khloe's got Kotex in her knickers, maybe advertisers will learn that consumers aren't so easily duped into buying unsexy, nonviolent things being sold to them in aggressively sexy, violent ways.

Perhaps the best trick in an advertiser's book remains the least used: honesty.

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