Monday, November 5, 2012

Is sexy advertising impairing your judgement?

Via Retrogasm
"Sex sells" — everyone says it, but do they ever wonder how it really works?

The intuitive consumer assumes that it only works on other people, and that those suckers buy products with sexualized advertising because they have been fooled into thinking those products will make them more sexually appealing to people like the people in the ads.

However, I recently read about some research that got me wondering if the sexy sales approach works on some even deeper, more insidious level.

Social scientists Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein were looking for a reason why people continue to pursue so many dangerous and harmful sexual activities, but found that little research had been conducted on the impact of sexual arousal on judgement. So they did their own.

A group of 35 young adult males were given a survey on "attractiveness of sexual activity, how far a participant would go to receive sexual gratification and probability of sexually risky behaviour" in both an aroused and non-aroused state.

Along with increased predicted enjoyment of sex, Ariely and Loewenstein also find that all responses to morally questionable behavior to acquire increased in the aroused state. When aroused, participants were more likely to take a women to a fancy restaurant, say he loves her when he does not, get his date drunk, keep trying after she says no and use a drug in order to procure sex. 
As the responses to the questions showed, a state of arousal decreases safety and morals. Interestingly, the third group of participants that completed the questionnaire three times (non-aroused, aroused, non-aroused) didn’t change their responses in the second non-aroused state. It appears people have limited knowledge of their own arousal decisions and are unable to predict how much arousal will impact them.

This finding is scary in itself, when you consider how much work goes into sex education and sexual assault prevention. But, of course, instinct does not excuse taking an action that you know is wrong. But knowing your judgement is decreased by arousal, just as with alcohol, might lead you to put more self-consciousness into your choices.

Let's look at the idea of impaired judgement on other fronts, however. "Stupid things I bought while drunk" is a common online topic. We've probably all done it. But if alcoholically impaired judgement has side-effects that are non-instinctive (unlike the Four Fs, shopping is not an evolved trait) could sexually impaired judgement also work for marketing?

"You fell in love with that girl at the Fotomat, you bought forty dollars worth of fuckin' film, 
and you never even talked to her. You don't even own a camera."

Of course it could. On men, anyway. As Men's Health puts it:
You act like a goof with the Hooters waitress, leaving a tip that doubles the bar bill. But why? Beautiful women cause a man's limbic system (the amygdala and other brain-stem structures, which are in charge of emotion) to fire up at the same time that his PFC checks out, leaving the judgment area vacant. Las Vegas casinos hire beautiful cocktail waitresses, dress them in low-cut tops and miniskirts, and have them pass out free alcohol—all of which encourages men's self-control to take the day trip to Hoover Dam. No wonder the house has the edge.
Which is why Hooters exists in the first place. And "booth babes" at conventions. And American Apparel.

Could there be much more to the use of erotica in ads than the obvious "Sex! Now that we have your attention..."? Arousal inhibits judgement. Which makes everything an easier sell. But the sex appeal of advertising seems to require that the heat be turned up constantly to break through and get noticed.

The result is a world of male consumers drunk on their own hormones, and a world of women made to feel that they have to compete for attention with these imaginary sexual displays. (Interestingly, ads for women rarely feature sexualized men, but ads for gay men do.)

We could do better than this, as an industry, if we just decided that sexual exploitation of people on both sides of the ad was wrong — or just unimaginative. But would any marketer be willing to give up such a powerful tool for mind control?


  1. my take: i probably would not buy it, but i sure do like looking at the ad!


  2. despite not buying the products, those ads do make me remember the products.