Selling Sex: Women React Differently Than Men

Many of us like to think we're not persuaded by advertising. Not me, I'm far too sophisticated for those marketers facile manipulations, you say on your way to buy the new iPhone 5S. (Apple sold over 9 million phones the weekend the iPhone 5 was released). Sorry, you too, have been co-opted.

And one of facts of your co-option is that "sex sells." It's almost too obvious to repeat: water is wet, the sky is blue, your eyeballs become transfixed when the ad is obviously connecting Product X to sex. Few would contend that this is not the number one marketing manipulation in regard to selling products to men. If you're really not sure on this point, watch any football game on TV or listen to the ads on a sports-talk radio show. The reasons for this are too obvious to discuss.

But what about women. How do they respond to advertisers using sex to sell their product? Well, some new research found:

Sexual economics theory predicts that women want sex to be seen as rare and special. We reasoned that this outlook would translate to women tolerating sexual images more when those images are linked to high worth as opposed to low worth. We manipulated whether an ad promoted an expensive or a cheap product using a sexually charged or a neutral scene. As predicted, women found sexual imagery distasteful when it was used to promote a cheap product, but this reaction to sexual imagery was mitigated if the product promoted was expensive. This pattern was not observed among men. Furthermore, we predicted and found that sexual ads promoting cheap products heightened feelings of being upset and angry among women. These findings suggest that women's reactions to sexual images can reveal deep-seated preferences about how sex should be used and understood.

Let's not quibble, though we could, that sexual economics theory is based on neo-classical economics which has been torn to shreds by behavioral economists.

At all events, the researchers used a watch as the product in question and either randomly assigned a price to it: either $1,250 or $10 in the context of a sexually-charged commercial. As the researchers noted, men apparently did not care whether the product was cheap or not -- women did.

Despite it shortcomings, I think sexual economics theory is right when it posits that women "want sex to be seen as rare and special." Whether this is true or seen through the veneer of cognitive dissonance is not important for marketing purposes because advertising acts directly on our cognitive dissonance, how we want to think about ourselves.

Perhaps this research tells us nothing new about women: they don't want sex to be associated with the cheap, ephemeral merchandise. Perhaps this is helpful only to marketing departments: don't make a sexualized ad for your product if it is low-dollar, low prestige. Some men -- you know who you are -- will simply see this as a reinforcement of their view that women are "gold diggers."

But it is safe to say this: sex does sell. With women, things are more complicated. For men, associate any product with sex, they don't care. And I suppose thus ends today's lesson in stereotypes reinforced by research.

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