Press cutting: The big turn off
1 March 2007
Using sex to sell a product does not work-particularly for women Sexual allure is often hinted as being the prize for buying this or that.
Professor Adrian Furnham [UCL Psychology] devised an experiment to test three ideas. The first was to confirm that men and women alike would struggle to remember the brand of a product that was advertised during a break in a programme that contained sex. The second was that commercials that had an erotic element would be recalled more readily than those that did not. Finally they wanted to know whether people would remember the advertisement more easily if its theme contrasted with the programme into which it had been inserted.
They recruited 60 young adults and divided them into four groups. The first and third groups were treated to an episode of 'Sex and the City' called 'Was it good for you?' in which the four female characters try to ascertain whether they are good in bed. It includes kissing, foreplay, nudity and sex scenes, and a discussion of the merits of sex, sexual failings and homosexuality. The second and fourth groups were shown an episode of 'Malcolm in the Middle', about the second-eldest of three boys raised at home in a dysfunctional family. It contained no such titillating material.
During a commercial break in the screenings, the researchers showed the first and second groups a series of six advertisements for products including shampoo, perfume and beer, all of which played on sex. The third and fourth groups were also shown a series of six advertisements for the same type of products that did not employ eroticism. They then asked their subjects about what they had seen. The results are published in the March issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Those who had watched 'Sex in the City' could remember little other than the programme. They were less able to name which brands had been advertised than were the groups that had watched 'Malcolm in the Middle', whether or not the advertisement tried to be sexy. Even when the researchers prompted their recall, by naming the type of product that had been advertised, the viewers of 'Sex in the City' failed to remember what they had seen, compared with the groups that had seen more mundane scenes.
To test the second hypothesis, the researchers compared the recollections of those who had seen the advertisements that used the promise of sexual allure with those of the people who saw advertisements that did not titillate. They found no significant difference between the two groups. There was, however, a difference between the sexes: men were more likely to remember sexual advertisements (albeit not the brand advertised) whereas women were more likely to remember non-sexual advertisements.
Finally the researchers tested to see whether the people who had watched 'Sex in the City' combined with non-sexual commercials and those who had watched 'Malcolm in the Middle' combined with sexual commercials remembered what was being advertised better than those shown more homogenous fare. Again, they found no significant difference between the two groups; this time, men and women reacted in the same way.
Earlier work has suggested that sex and violence in television programmes deter people from paying attention to advertisements, but speculated that this may be overcome by using sex in the commercials as well. The new work suggests that this view is mistaken. It would appear that sex does not sell anything other than itself.