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Does sex in advertising actually work?


Bikini-clad models sprawled across the hood of bright red sports cars. Muscular men shaving the last bit of stubble off of their chins, only to receive a kiss from their beautiful girlfriends. Airbrushed celebrities on every magazine cover.

Well, sex sells. But does it really?

Sex in advertising has existed for the better part of a century. As we become desensitized in the age of R-rated films and commercials that aren’t far behind, the explicitness of sex in advertising only continues to grow.

However, in his book Buyology, marketing guru Martin Lindstrom details eye path studies which back up the theory that explicit imagery in advertising might have the opposite effect in some cases. The findings showed that subjects (both men AND women) were distracted by the sexual content, and therefore tended to miss the actual point of the ad.

In fact, only about 10% of the subjects remembered the brand or product when the content was sexually explicit. However, in the same study, nearly 20% recalled the brand or product correctly when the ads did not include sexually explicit content.

By this point I am imagining all of the males reading this blog pouting and shaking their heads. Say it ain’t so, Kristen, they say. Say it ain’t so.

Well, there is good news for lovers of sexually explicit ads everywhere. While in some cases it does not in fact sell, there are two ways in which sex in advertising has seen (and continues to see) massive success.

1. Controversy

In the 1980s, The Gap started to air and print widely scrutinized ads of thin, scantily clad models that looked just a bit too young for the suggestive poses they were in. The controversy grew from there and before they knew it The Gap had created public outrage. Through all of the seemingly bad press, however, The Gap’s business became more and more successful.

Think of the ads you see for American Apparel these days. Do some of them make you cringe? That cringing effect is what has made American Apparel gain success over the past 5 years, opening more and more stores every year.

The point? Moreso than sex, controversy sells. It just so happens that many sexually explicit ads tend to go hand-in-hand with that controversial element.

2. Aspirational content

Whether we like it or not, flipping through a fashion magazine or watching celebrities on TV will at times make us want to be like them. When you see a model in the shirt that caught your eye, do you not imagine yourself looking like that in the mirror?

The use of beautiful, sexy people in advertising where the person can aspire to be what that model is, has been shown to be quite effective. More so than being physically attracted to that person, you are imagining yourself in his/her place. And that makes you want the product.

The idea of “sex sells” in advertising has been around for decades, and apparently it still rings true. But according to the studies put forth by Martin Lindstrom, it may not sell in the ways that we originally thought. As advertisers it is important to recognize the difference and find the best way in which ads can effectively communicate our brands to our customers.


Lindstrom, Martin. Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday, 2008. Print.