Does Sex Really “Sell?”


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Does sex really sell?

Not necessarily.

In a poll that showed up on, the older the prospect you’re targeting, the more likely they are to dislike s*xy ads.

I say that, by the way, thinking it’s more complicated than people being offended. After all, a lot of men told the Adweek pollsters that they wanted to see more skin, not less.

But that doesn’t mean the ads themselves will be more effective. Just more fun to look at. And there’s a difference.

Here’s another way such copy/marketing decisions can be complex: I remember years back, hearing from some marketing consultants that worked with a clothing catalog company.

The target customers were older men of means. Golf wear, cruise wear, and the like. On the cover of one catalog, they showed a 60-or-so year old guy in his sailing clothes, on the deck of a sailboat.

As a test, they tried putting a trim and shapely 30-something woman at his side. She was, in a word, a babe. Did it help sales?

Quite the opposite. Response plunged.

Why? The consultants asked customers and got back the answer that (a) it was the wives of the men who did most of the catalog shopping for their husbands and (b) those wives thought the woman in the photo looked like a mistress.


The company tested the cover again, this time with an attractive woman of a more appropriate age. And maybe, if I remember, standing a little closer to the helm.

It boosted sales considerably.

Last modified: June 14, 2020

4 Responses to " Does Sex Really “Sell?” "

  1. Robinsh says:

    No doubt the consumers are getting smarter day by day and hence sexy ads are also getting immediate rejection, now it’s an era where only quality can be marketed or just go get out of the market with your bloody product or service.

  2. jackforde says:

    Perhaps… though I think the response to the sex-appeal of ads, where product-relevant, has little to do with “smarts” per se. That is, if the product promise is somehow rightly entangled with sex appeal, then the animal motivations kick in unhindered. There’s little thinking about it involved. In the case of this ad, I suspect why it didn’t work was because the young hottie didn’t belong in that boat next to a guy who could be her dad. Robinsh »

  3. Tim Kisner says:

    This makes me wonder about how the impact of the use of s*x for inbound and outbound marketing may differ. A lot of click-thru ads feature a pretty girl just to get you to notice their button or link. (Similarly, an unusual image may be used as a way to stand out.)

    Once the young lovely has done her job of getting you to click, her work can be done. You are now in the inbound marketing world and looking for information. Could it be that s*x was only a small but essential part of the overall marketing cocktail?

  4. jackforde says:

    Tim Kisner » Thanks Tim, for the comment… and my apologies for the delayed reply. I think that to some extent, that may be true… the pretty face does pull clicks and attract attention. It would be silly to deny it. For instant proof, do just about any search on YouTube for high-volume clicks on videos. Many varied clips get them, but the ones that get clicks most consistently have an attractive girl in the still (not so for clips showing men, or I wouldn’t have specified).

    Still, I think the question here is whether or not the lure of beauty is enough. If you’ve got a dumb headline, bad copy, or a pointless or irrelevant (to the buyer) product… the ad is still likely to fail. That’s not really a surprise to either of us, I’m sure. But then the message becomes, don’t tell yourself sex will pull in buyers… because if that’s what you’re counting on, you’ll end up not developing the rest of what needs to be developed.

    I look at it this way: If, after I’ve crafted a great sales message, I want to add a pretty face to the page that says “Call our switchboard!” or something similar, then sure… it’s a good move and makes sense. Tests show that helps boost response. But if I’m thinking, “She’s hot… what can she sell”… then I’m probably headed off down the wrong path.

    (That said, I remember seeing a renewal letter for a subscription product, where the entire drive was centered around the idea that not renewing would make the publisher — a very attractive blonde woman — sad. To emphasize the message, there was a picture of her pouting at the top of the page. Shameless? Maybe. But it worked…)

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