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Why sex sells

November 25, 2008 Leave a comment

Frank Martin has a great blog, and recently posted 30 questions to marketers. I think a lot of marketers–particularly new marketers–need to think long and hard about these questions, even if Frank intended them to be rhetorical. The conventional wisdom is high on convention and low on wisdom.

The second one of Frank’s questions I’ll tackle is question #7: “Do men really think that beer will give them access to the beautiful women in the beer ads, or ones like them?”

One might think the answer is no. But really, the answer is irrelevant, because beer companies don’t need to promise access to those beautiful women; they only need to show those beautiful women. And this, really, is the evil genius of marketing.

Images of beautiful women make straight men impatient and make them willing to settle for less in monetary transactions. A 2006 study by researchers Bram Van den Bergh and Siegfried Dewitte at University of Leuven in Belgium found that the correlation is related to the man’s testosterone levels: the higher the testosterone, the lower the resolve after the images are presented. (The findings were duplicated in a related 2008 study.) So straight men, watching sporting events, where their levels of testosterone are elevated anyway, see a beer ad with pretty girls in skimpy outfits, and their need for immediate gratification grows. They make a beer run at halftime, and their impatience leads them to the big display with another ad–this one a huge cardboard display of another pretty girl in another skimpy outfit–and they make their purchase, and their need for instant gratification is sated.

It’s kind of interesting, and kind of sickening–especially if you’re a straight man who realizes you’ve been manipulated in this way. But the enormous beer companies aren’t stupid; I would bet that they had researchers who discovered this long before Bram Van den Bergh was a testosterone-fueled glint in his father’s eye.

The upside for marketers is to realize that yes, sex sells–but only, according to this research, to straight men for impulse-buy products. There’s a reason why enterprise software companies don’t market with sexual imagery: it’s because the purchase does not sate the instant gratification mechanism those images trigger. Once the trigger is over, the opportunity is gone. I once worked for a marketing agency that had a client that wanted to sell their enterprise-level network security appliances with sex–and they were horrified at the results.

There’s also nothing in the study to suggest that brand (or even the product) carries over from the viewing of the advertisement to the purchase of the product–although I’m sure the evil marketing geniuses at Anheuser-Busch probably have done some research on that, too. But it’s quite possible that if a man sees a Miller Lite ad with sexual imagery, then goes to the store to buy beer, he might just grab the Coors Light from the display with the sexual imagery instead.

I don’t market impulse-buy stuff, and I never have. I’d love to hear what experiences (if any) other people have had in their industries with selling their products and/or services with sexual imagery.

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