A review of content, effects, and functions of sexual information in consumer advertising

Sex in advertising research: A review of content, effects, and functions of sexual information in consumer advertising

Reichert, Tom

This article is a review of academic research on the content and effects of sexual information in advertising (i.e., sex in advertising). In addition to covering common types of sexual content analyzed in research, inquiry on processing and emotional response effects is reviewed. Several areas for continued research are identified, especially with regard to advertisers’ use of sexual outcomes as reasons for using brands and the ability of sexual information to influence brand perceptions. This review has applicability to advertising and marketing research and practice, as well as to any area that employs sexual information for persuasive purposes (e.g., safer-sex social marketing campaigns). In addition, it is hoped that sex researchers will recognize and elaborate on the role of sexual response identified in this research to further inform advertising theory and effects research.

Key Words: advertising effects, consumer behavior, media effects, see advertising, sexual response, sexual stimuli.

Sex in advertising, the use of sexual information in mediated promotional messages, has maintained a presence since advertising’s beginning. Early on, wood carvings and illustrations of attractive women (often unclothed from the waist up) adorned posters, signs, and ads for saloons, tonics, and tobacco. In several cases, sex in advertising has been the motivation for increased consumer interest and sales. To increase cigarette sales in 1885, W. Duke & Sons inserted trading cards into cigarette packs that featured sexually provocative starlets. Duke grew to become the leading cigarette brand by 1890 (Porter, 1971). Woodbury’s Facial Soap, a woman’s beauty bar, was almost discontinued in 1910. The soap’s sales decline was reversed, however, with ads containing images of romantic couples and promises of love and intimacy for those using the brand (Account Histories, 1926). Jovan Musk Oil, introduced in 1971, was promoted with sexual entendre and descriptions of the fragrance’s sexual attraction properties. As a result, Jovan, Inc.’s revenue grew from $1.5 million in 1971 to $77 million by 1978 (Sloan & Millman, 1979)

In contemporary mainstream consumer advertising (e.g., magazines, network and cable television), sex is present in promotional messages for a wide range of branded goods. Ads feature provocative images of well-defined women (and men) in revealing outfits and postures selling clothing, alcohol, beauty products, and fragrances. Advertisers such as Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, and Pepsi use these images to cultivate a ubiquitous sex-tinged media presence. Also, sexual information is used to promote mainstream products not traditionally associated with sex. For example, the Dallas Opera recently reversed declining season ticket sales by marketing the more lascivious parts of its performances. As a result of its sexual promotion strategy, season ticket packages sold out faster than ever before (Chism, 1999).

Since the 1960s, researchers using social science methods have attempted to understand the role of sex in advertising for selling brands. Specifically, they have attempted to understand exactly how sexual content influences the advertising communication process. In this article, I organize this body of research by first defining and describing common types of sexual content examined by investigators, and then by reviewing major approaches in pertinent effects research. Finally, I set forth areas for future research that can enhance the congruence between sexual appeal research with advertising practice. These areas include further analysis of sex-related appeals in ads, examining whether and how sexual content can influence brand perceptions, and the utility of including personality variables (e.g., erotophobia/philia) in future studies. This review is limited to United States-based research because the bulk of sex in advertising research consists of U.S. media content and population samples. Included in the review is illustrative content analysis research, as well as an exhaustive collection of effects studies.

The purpose of this review is not to help marketers make better use of sex in order to persuade consumers but to clarify and provide a groundwork that helps academic researchers and public policymakers realize how mediated sexual content can influence consumers. Only by first understanding what Gould (1994) called teleological research, which addresses effects and consequences of sexual appeals on the target audience, can ethics-related policies, such as choice enhancement– policies that increase consumer choices and foster individual responsibility-or consumer protection be adequately addressed.

Sexual Content in Advertising

Just as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964, p. 197) described pornography, “I know it when I see it,” similarly vague descriptions are used to convey sex in advertising (see Strong, 1979). When the general public considers sex in advertising, a wide variety of exemplars come to mind. Some consider sexual content to be promotional messages about feminine hygiene products (Johnson & Satow, 1978). Others describe imperceptible sexual images inserted into ads, popularized by Wilson Key (1973) in his book Subliminal Seduction, as sex in advertising. For some individuals, fetishized objects and parts of the body come to mind (Schroeder & Borgerson, 2003). Many young adults think of buxom bikini-clad young women and shirtless, welldefined handsome men hawking products as examples of sex in advertising (Reichert & Ramirez, 2000).

A commonality among these types of ads is the presence of sexual information-content with ascribed sexual meaning (Byrne, 1982; Fisher, 1986). Courtney and Whipple (1983) described sex in advertising as “sexuality in the form of nudity, sexual imagery, innuendo, and double entendre . . . employed as an advertising tool for a wide variety of products” (p. 103). More formally, sex in advertising can be considered mediated messages (i.e., television commercials, magazine ads) containing sexual information with the persuasive purpose of selling branded goods (Reichert, Heckler, & Jackson, 2001). Advertising is commonly defined as “any paid form of nonpersonal communication about an organization, product, service, or idea by an identified sponsor” (Belch & Belch, 2001, p. 15), and by its very nature advertising is a form of persuasive communication (Thorson, 1990). Advertisers attempt to create awareness and knowledge of their brands among carefully defined target audiences. Organizations and marketers also attempt to reinforce or modify consumers’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, and, ultimately, behavioral outcomes (i.e., transactions) with regard to the brand.

Regarding sex in advertising, sexual information can be associated to greater or lesser degrees with the advertiser’s persuasive appeal. For example, sexual content can be used to draw attention to the product (low association). Consider an automobile ad emphasizing fuel economy. An attractive woman posing next to the automobile is an example of a low association linkage between sex and the message. Alternately, sexual information can be an integral part of the brand message (high association). Consider a recent magazine ad in Esquire for Jovan Musk. The ad features an image of a couple in a sensual embrace. The woman’s eyes are closed, and her head is tilted back while the man kisses her neck. The headline reads, “What attracts? This is what attracts. Jovan Musk.” The argument, whether credible or not, is that use of the fragrance results in a sexual outcome. According to Jovan, sexual information is inseparable from the persuasive message-it is the persuasive message. The ad says to men, the intended audience, use this fragrance and you will increase your odds of experiencing encounters like the one shown in this ad.

Types of Sexual Advertising Content

What are commonly identified forms of sexual content in advertising? An examination of the analysis research done on television and magazine content reveals that common forms of sexual content include the following: nudity (dress), physical attractiveness, suggestive behavior, interaction, innuendo, and other factors such as setting, context, and camera effects. Content analyses reveal that the vast majority of sexual content in advertising comprises visual representations of people (Biswas, Olsen, & Carlet, 1992; Soley & Kurzbard, 1986). Similarly, a recent analysis of respondents’ identification of sex in advertising showed that they overwhelming described visual aspects of ads (Reichert & Ramirez, 2000). Sexual language and referents to sexual behavior have been analyzed in magazine and television advertising content as well, but to a lesser degree (Lin, 1998; Soley & Reid, 1985; Walker, 2000).

Body display. By far, most content and effects research in the advertising literature involves revealing displays of the human body (for review, see Reichert, 2003). Often referred to as “nudity” in advertising, this form of sexual content more accurately refers to the amount and style of clothing worn by models. Often the bodies belong to physically attractive models wearing clothing that accentuates well-defined physiques. Revealing clothing includes women in short skirts, innerwear, and low-cut blouses, and men in tight jeans or underwear, or shirtless. Despite the term nudity, genital displays are rare in mainstream consumer advertising, although images of women’s breasts– with nipples covered-do occur.

The bulk of sex in advertising research (both content and effects) has employed amount of clothing as an operationalization of sexual content (Alexander & Judd, 1978; Jones, Stanaland, & Gelb, 1998; Judd & Alexander, 1983; Peterson & Kerin, 1977; Simpson, Horton, & Brown, 1996; Steadman, 1969; Weller, Roberts, & Neuhaus, 1979). Researchers often utilize Soley and Reid’s (1988; see also, Soley & Kurzbard, 1986) ordinal categorization of clothing (demure, suggestive, partially clad, nude). In effects research, investigators assess levels of dress on advertising effectiveness. For example, LaTour (1990; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993) tested the effect of dress on attitudes toward the ad and other dependent variables. The four conditions consisted of ads featuring a fragrance by itself, and the fragrance with a demurely dressed model, a partially clad model, and a fully nude model. The sample of female and male undergraduates favored the ads differently depending on how much clothing the model was wearing.

Content analyses reveal that body display is a common component of sexual information in advertising. Discussed in more detail in the following section, content research shows that women are dressed in revealing clothing, or none at all, in up to 40% of mainstream magazines (Reichert, Lambiase, Morgan, Carstarphen, & Zavoina, 1999) and up to 12% of prime-time network television commercials (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001b).

Sexual behavior. The sexually provocative actions of models in ads, or between models in ads, are also considered sexual content in advertising. In one study, 39% of female and male undergraduate respondents described a model’s behavior as a reason an ad was sexy (Reichert & Ramirez, 2000). Respondents were asked to think of a sexy ad and describe what it was about the ad that made it sexual to them. Descriptions included models moving and talking in a manner that communicated sexual interest or in a manner intended to evoke viewers’ sexual interest. Typical behaviors included models making eye contact with the camera (proxy for the viewer) and other provocative body movements indicative of flirting behavior (e.g., fleeting glances, smiling, self-grooming, head tilt, exposing neck; Givens, 1983). For example, 25% of women in promotional ads for the Spanish-language network Univision were portrayed engaging in sexual behavior, such as puckering their lips, emphasizing their cleavage, glancing seductively into the camera, and dancing in an erotic manner (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001a).

Sexual behavior also includes sexualized language and vocalics, the way words are vocalized. Models that speak in breathy, panting, and low tones exemplify vocalics that can contribute to sexual interpretations. For example, 1995 Clairol Herbal Essences television commercials include women exclaiming “Yes, yes, yes!” as they wash their hair. According to one male undergraduate respondent, the sounds emitted by the women in Herbal Essences commercials reminded him of women approaching orgasm. “If I didn’t see the TV, I might have thought it was a porno” (Reichert, 2001, p. 50). Another male respondent identified “a very sensual soft voice of a female,” as one of the elements he found sexual in advertising (data from Reichert & Ramirez, 2000).

Sexual behavior can also include interaction between two or more people. Similar to erotica or soft-core pornography, consumers are privy to private sexual behavior between others, such as kissing, embracing, caressing, simulated oral or coital sex, stripping, and voyeurism. In the Reichert and Ramirez (2000) survey, 15% of the sample described models engaged in sexual interaction as sexual to them. Advertising research in this area has primarily examined sexual interaction as opposed to the sexual behavior of an individual model (Belch, Holgerson, Belch, & Koppman, 1981; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; Reichert & Alvaro, 2001; Reichert et al., 2001; Sciglimpaglia, Belch, & Cain, 1979; Severn, Belch, & Belch, 1990). Interaction, often referred to as “contact” in the literature, is analyzed according to Soley and Reid’s (1988) categorization. For example, nonsexual contact includes no physical contact or a couple holding hands. Sexual contact includes kissing and more sexually progressive forms of touching (i.e., passionate kissing, simulated foreplay).

Contextual factors. Contributing elements that enhance and frame sexual content are also present in advertising. Often occurring in conjunction with the content previously described, these elements include setting (location) and film and production techniques. Over 25% of the sample in the Reichert and Ramirez (2000) survey described something about the commercial or print ad, other than the models or actors, that contributed to sexual perceptions. For example, references to romantic settings such as a Caribbean destination or a campfire on the beach were mentioned. Similarly, descriptions of ads where the action was set in a strip club or bedroom were also included. In addition, the following camera techniques and style contributed to sexual perceptions: The ad was shot in black and white, featured fast pacing, and used camera shots that slowly moved over the model lingering on breasts or other anatomy. Music with a slow sultry beat and hazy lighting effects were also noted.

Unfortunately, content or advertising effects research has not specifically addressed context as a component of sex in advertising. However, one formative interpretive study found that male students, compared to females, were more likely to view an image of a man and woman on a beach in a vodka ad as sexual (Mick & Politi, 1989). The results of this study revealed that viewers had different interpretations of the relationship in the ad, one of which was sexual. As a result, context can contribute to creating sexual perceptions, but unless the primary stimulus (e.g., romantic couple, scantily clad model) is clearly sexual, interpretations may vary.

Sexual referents. Verbal elements, or the mix of verbal and visual message elements, include sexual innuendo and double entendre. Often, comments or phrases in ads have multiple meanings, one of which is risque. A double entendre is a message with two or more interpretations, one of which has a sexual meaning when framed by a sexual image. For example, an advertisement for the Rice Council, an industry trade group promoting rice, featured the image of a woman looking at the camera with her finger between her parted lips, and the headline, “The first time it kind of scared me.” The woman was referring to cooking rice, but the interpretation was sexually suggestive when coupled with the image (Richmond & Hartman, 1982; see also Tinkham & Reid, 1988). Related research examined reactions to the 1980 Calvin Klein jeans commercial featuring Brooke Shields, asking, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing” (Bello, Pitts, & Etzel, 1983). Framed with a camera shot that took 13 seconds to slowly move along the length of her leg and up to her inseam before including her face, Shields’ question had an unmistakable sexual meaning in the 30-second commercial.

Sexual embeds and symbolism. Although this review is focused on manifest sexual content, sexual embeds and subliminal elements are also examples of sexual content in advertising. A sexual embed is a small, imperceptible image of a naked person or sexual parts of a person (e.g., genitalia, breasts) placed into ad images by advertisers (for review, see Ruth, Mosatche, & Kramer, 1989; Theus, 1994; Trappey, 1996). Similarly, objects with shapes that connote genitalia (e.g., rockets, bottles) and sexual acts (e.g., key inserted into a lock) are considered examples of sexual symbolism.

Embeds and symbols fall within the subliminal advertising domain because consumers have no conscious awareness of their presence (Trappey, 1996). The images are recognized as sexual at a preconscious level. Ruth et al. (1989) succinctly described Freudian symbolism theory, which explains how hidden sexual symbols and embeds work:

First, that certain objects, due to their structural and functional sexual characteristics, are capable of triggering an unconscious recognition of the male and female genitalia and the act of sexual intercourse; and second, that his unconscious recognition is sexually arousing and motivating although the individual may not be consciously aware of the object’s sexual associations and symbolic content. (p. 1131)

Once these embeds are processed subconsciously, they purportedly motivate movement toward the stimulus, either as behavioral intentions, longer viewing times, or favorable dispositions to ads and products (Theus, 1994). In other words, viewers should show a preference for brands advertised with sexual embeds. For example, Ruth et al. (1989) found that both female and male undergraduate respondents were more likely to report intentions to purchase liquor advertised with genital symbolism than liquor advertised with nonsymbolic ads.

Despite Ruth et al.’s (1989) findings, the existence and effects of subliminal embeds and symbols are controversial. Industry and advertising professionals claim there is no imperative in the ad creation process to employ sexual embeds. In addition, rigorous social science research has failed to substantiate subliminal effects (e.g., Rosen & Singh, 1992). Alternately, those who do believe in the existence and effects of subliminal sexual content continue to voice their opinions (see Key, 1973, 2003). For example, Key argues that advertisers’ proprietary consumer research, unavailable for scholarly examination, proves that subliminal ads are effective. “Advertisers use the technique, which they deny using, because it sells products. People are scared to even consider the plausibility of its existence because it threatens their sense of free will” (Key, personal communication, June 12, 2002). Others have argued that advertisers, because of their own unconscious motivations, may not even be aware of their use of sexual symbolism (Ruth et al.).

The present review, however, is limited to the content and effects of manifest sexual content. Because, first, overt sexual content is consciously detectable, and its existence is unambiguous. Second, accordingly to symbolism theory, the more consciously detectable the sexual content, the less effective it is, as viewers are better able to employ defense mechanisms. From the examples cited at the beginning of this article and the effects research described in a following section, it is obvious that sexual content is effective. Readers interested in further discussion of the existence and utility of sexual embeds and symbolism are encouraged to consult pertinent reviews.

Prevalence and Modality

Given the variation in sexual advertising content, an important quest for researchers has been to determine the extent of sexual material in mainstream advertising. Analyses reveal that sexual content is indeed prevalent, and perhaps more prevalent and explicit than in the past. Content analyses have examined sexual ad content in magazines, television commercials, and program promotional messages.

Soley and Reid (1988) compared the amount of clothing models were wearing in six high circulation mainstream magazines over 2 decades (Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Esquire, Playboy, Newsweek, and Time). They found that women were dressed sexually-suggestively dressed, partially clad, or nude-in 31% of ads in 1964 compared to 35% in 1984. During the same time period, 6% of male models were dressed sexually in 1964 compared to 14% in 1984. A partial replication found that women continued to dress in revealing clothing (40%) in 1993, as well as did men (18%; Reichert et al., 1999). In addition, sexual contact between models was more sexualized. For example, 21% of heterosexual couples engaged in explicit sexual contact (e.g., passionate kissing, simulated intercourse) in 1983 compared to 53% in 1993. Very intimate contact (inferences to intercourse) increased from 1% to 17% over the same time period. Changes were primarily in women’s and men’s magazines, compared to consistently low levels of sexual content in newsweeklies.

In television commercials broadcast during prime time, the proportion of sexually dressed models is generally less than in magazines. A sample of 1993 prime-time network commercials (N = 505) revealed that 8% of all models/actors engaged in sexual conduct (Lin, 1998). In addition, 18% of models were judged to be “very sexy” according to their physical attractiveness and clothing style. In the 1993 analysis, four graduate student coders (two male and two female) achieved 95% interrater reliability. In 1998, 12% of women in NBC prime-time ads (N = 305) were dressed sexually, compared to 2% of male models (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001b). Coders in this study, a graduate student and a professor, reported a .93 overall reliability coefficient.

Researchers have also examined the incidence of sexual content in network promotional messages, ads run by networks to enhance program ratings (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001a; Soley & Reid, 1985; Walker, 2000; Williams, 1989). In 1983, Soley and Reid (1985) found that 36% of network promotional ads in TV Guide (N = 806) included sexual content, primarily in the form of sexual behavior (e.g., physical contact, intercourse, prostitution, and rape) and sexual language (e.g., verbal references to sex organs, innuendo, and sexual behavior). Recently, Walker found that sexual behavior, principally in the form of sexual contact, had increased from 12% in 1990 (prime-time, and nonprimetime network, and cable promotional ads; N = 1,204) to 21% in 1998 (prime-time network promotional ads; N = 985). Sexual language, not measured in 1990, was present in 23.4% of promotional messages. Analysis of 1998 promotional messages on Spanish-language network Univision revealed that 40% of women were portrayed in sexually revealing clothing (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001a). According to the authors, “Spanish-language television viewers often see a parade of scantily dressed, young, attractive women exposing partially bare breasts, bare stomachs and bare bottoms to the audience” (Fullerton & Kendrick, 2001a, p. 71). Clearly, sexual content is a fundamental element used by network promotional departments to entice viewers.

Sexual content in selling messages also appears on the Internet. Aside from the preponderance of pornography available on the web, Lambiase (2003) argued that sex in advertising is used to sell nonsexual products on the web, although content analyses are not yet available. One reason for the lack of analyses, as pointed out by Lambiase, is that sexual banners, buttons, and interstitials are programmed to appear to viewers who behave in particular ways. For example, surfing patterns and online purchase behavior are entered electronically into databases. Data patterns allow marketers to target web users matching certain behavioral characteristics (e.g., surfing risque web sites) with sexual appeals. As a result, researchers attempting traditional content analysis are hindered because sexual ads find viewers, not the other way around. In addition, potentially offensive appeals are only likely to be seen by those most receptive to them.

In summary, content research reveals that a range of sexual content is present in mainstream advertising (e.g., broadcast, print, outdoor, and web-based media). Other than prime-time television commercials and high-circulation magazines ads, however, little is known about sexual content targeted to different audiences (e.g., age, race). For example, it is unclear whether sexual images are more prevalent in ads targeted to adolescents and young adults than to more mature adults. Analysis of commercials appearing in young-adult television programming, as well as in magazines with high readership among this group, would reveal if advertisers use sex to reach younger, perhaps more susceptible audiences. If so, advertiser’s use of sexual content to sell products could have public policy implications.

Also, current operationalizations of sexual content provide an indication of sexual content levels, but they are too simplistic to fully capture the nature of sexual information and meaning. Coding of sexual content typically involves counting the number of sexual words in an ad or determining how much clothing a model is wearing. Such coding schemes fail to identify sexualized models who may be fully dressed or headlines that have a sexual meaning only when accompanied by a sexual image (e.g., double entendre).

In addition, the various forms of sexual content outlined in this section rarely appear in isolation. For example, models in revealing attire may also be physically attractive, photographed in a manner that contributes to sexual interpretations and meaning, or placed in a setting with sexualized meaning (e.g., bedroom, nightclub, candlelight dinner). Current coding fails to discern these nuances. In addition, a narrow focus on manifest sexual content misses more subtle sexual messages such as claims made by advertisers about sexual outcomes. Consider the Jovan example described earlier in the article. The ad would be coded as sexual because of the couple’s intimate contact, but current analysis methods would not be able to identify the advertiser’s claim that Jovan users are more sexually attractive. This particular concern is discussed in more detail later.

Despite these shortcomings, content analyses do provide a relative indication of the presence of the obvious forms of sexual advertising content. The effects of these images on advertising processing and outcomes are described in the following section.

Sex-in-Advertising Effects Research

Nearly all sex-in-advertising scientific effects studies are located in the marketing and advertising and, to a lesser degree, mass communication research literatures (for review, see Belch, Belch, & Villarreal, 1987; Percy & Rossiter, 1992). It is likely that much of this research, especially initial studies, were in response to the decorative use of female models in advertising. For example, early studies were entitled, “The Impact of Physically Attractive Models on Advertising Evaluations” (Baker & Churchill, 1977); “Do Nudes in Ads Enhance Brand Recall?” (Alexander & Judd, 1978); and “Decorative Models and the Readership of Magazine Ads” (Reid & Soley, 1983). In these studies, attractive, nude, and decorative content pertained to female models.

In addition, the origin of sex-in-advertising effects research was an attempt to explain and understand the utility of sex in advertising. Important questions revolved around issues of whether sexual information in advertising was effective. Are sexy ads attended to? Are sexy ads liked? Are sexy ads remembered? These questions pertained to an overarching question: Does sex in advertising enhance or hinder advertising processing? If the answer is that sex in advertising enhances processing, ads should be more persuasive and result in more transactions.

Alternately, if sexual content inhibits processing, consumers will be unable or unwilling to purchase the advertised brand. Do marketers who employ scantily clad models in ads, especially those with no obvious link to the product, waste their money? Are consumers apt to attend to ads with sex information and, if so, remember the advertised brand? Many of these same questions drive present research.

With few exceptions, sex-in-advertising effects studies share similar research designs. For example, ads with images of women in varying degrees of revealing clothing are compared to each other as well as to a control ad in experimental studies. The control ad usually consists of an image of the product alone or superimposed on a landscape scene (e.g., LaTour, 1990). Low, medium, and high sexual treatment conditions are operationalized as women in progressive stages of undress: low, fully clothed or suggestively dressed; moderate, swimwear and intimate wear; high, nudity (e.g., Dudley, 1999). As previously mentioned, women represent the vast majority of sexual stimuli in sexual ad research, although images of couples and male models have been researched as well. Tests of sex versus no-sex or low-sex comparisons also exist (LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; Reichert et al., 2001). In such studies, ads with images of a couple engaged in sexual behavior are compared to a couple in a nonsexual interaction.

Advertising Processing

Researchers employ two related theoretical approaches to explain sex– in-advertising processing effects. These approaches, initiated in the 1960s, are the information-processing and hierarchy-of-effects models. Both assume that recipients of persuasive communications progress linearly through a series of stages, with persuasion as the ultimate outcome (Barry, 1987; McGuire, 1986). Steps in the process include awareness, attention, liking, comprehension, receptivity, and persuasion. A general assumption is that obstacles that impede consumers from attending to, encoding, and storing information in memory will prematurely terminate the persuasion process. If sexual content, for example, distracts viewers from processing the message, the use of sex is deemed counterproductive and to be avoided. The information-processing approach assumes a rational model of advertising processing and consumer behavior.

Researchers have generally hypothesized that sexual information in ads is noticed and subsequently remembered. However, the attention directed toward the sexual content may result in a counterproductive distraction. Sexual imagery attracts a viewer’s attention and processing resources, leaving few resources available for processing of other ad information. As a result, brand information (i.e., reasons for buying the brand, brand name, sponsorship) is not processed to the same degree. MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski (1991) postulated that hedonic information such as sex motivates viewers to attend to the hedonic cue at the exclusion of brand cues. What follows is a description of relevant research that is generally supportive of MacInnis et al.’s reasoning. Important dependent variables in this research include attention, ad/brand-name recall, message involvement, and ad/message thoughts and cognitions.

In the advertising context, there is strong evidence that sexual information attracts attention (Belch et al., 1981; Chestnut, LaChance, & Lubitz, 1977; Dudley, 1999; Reichert et al., 2001). Attention can be thought of as an orienting response, an involuntary directing of focused attention (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). In some studies, attention is measured through self-report (e.g., “This ad is attention getting”; Reichert et al., 2001) or by physiological response procedures (e.g., galvanic skin response; Belch et al., 1981). Simple recognition or noting of an ad has also been assessed as a measure of attention (Reid & Soley, 1981, 1983).

Research findings also show that sexual ads are more engaging, involving, and interesting than nonsexual ads (Bello et al., 1983; Dudley, 1999; Judd & Alexander, 1983; Reichert & Alvaro, 2001; Reichert et al., 2001). For example, Bello et al. tested both a sexual and a nonsexual version of the Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein jeans commercial previously described. The sexual version was rated as significantly more interesting by both female (n = 79) and male (n = 138) 18-24-year-old respondents. Overall these studies show that sexual ads are able to captivate the viewer and maintain attention.

In addition, there is evidence that attention is directed toward sexual information in the ad, as measured by visual recognition and recall. For example, recognition of sexual visuals in ads (e.g., decorative images of women) is significantly higher than that in similar ads without sexual images (Reid & Soley, 1981, 1983). Secondary analysis of Starch-scores, industry measures of advertising memory, revealed that decorative female models (sexually attractive with no functional relationship to the product) improved recognition for the ad compared to ads without decorative female models (Reid & Soley, 1981, 1983). In related research, visual elements of sexual ads exhibited a small advantage for visual recognition (Chestnut et al., 1977). In a test of visual playback (respondents describing what they remember seeing in ads), a sexual Calvin Klein fragrance commercial was described in greater detail by both female and male undergraduate respondents than a nonsexual Calvin Klein fragrance commercial (Reichert & Alvaro, 2001). The effect persisted when assessed 2 months after exposure, as respondents continued to remember the sexual imagery in greater detail than imagery in the nonsexual commercial.

Analysis of attention and visual-encoding findings suggests that the distraction hypothesis has merit. For the hypothesis to be fully supported, however, processing and encoding of brand information must also be affected by the presence of sexual content. Results overwhelmingly support this feature of the distraction hypothesis. Brand-name recall is the most common indicator in this research. Studies show that sponsors of sexual ads are less likely to be remembered than sponsors of nonsexual ads (Alexander & Judd, 1978; Grazer & Keesling, 1995; Judd & Alexander, 1983; Reichert & Alvaro, 2001; Weller et al., 1979). Whereas Steadman (1969) did not find an effect immediately after exposing the ad to respondents, brand-name recall was significantly lower 1 week later in the sexual-ad condition. Similarly, findings from other studies confirm a decrease in brand-name recall over time (Reichert & Alvaro, 2001; Weller et al., 1979).

Findings are mixed, however, with regard to the processing of copy (text) in the ad. For example, Reid and Soley (1981, 1983) found a small advantage for recognition of verbal elements in sexual ads in their secondary analysis of industry data. On the other hand, Severn, Belch, and Belch (1990) found that copy recall was significantly lower in sexual ads, compared to nonsexual ads, containing high levels of information. It is important to note that the degree to which sexual information was integrated with the text may explain the divergent findings. Reid and Soley (1981, 1983) analyzed male-only responses to cigarette, liquor, and automotive ads featuring sexual images of women. It is possible that the product categories, and perhaps the appeals in the ads, were relevant to the sexual information in the ad (decorative women). Alternately, text in the ads in the Severn et al., (1990) study had no relationship to the sexual image in the ad. The product was athletic shoes and featured an image of a nude couple engaging in sexual behavior (woman straddling a man). The text in the ad had little or no relevance to the image. These findings suggest that when sexual information is integrated within the message, processing of the message is more likely to occur. If sex is used gratuitously, however, the distraction effect is likely to be pronounced.

In a related study, brand-name recall was found to be linked to the relevance of the sexual appeal to the product (Richmond & Hartman, 1982). In that study, brand-name recall was significantly lower when sexual content in the ad was not functionally related to the product than when sexual content was linked to the product. For example, brand names in ads for condoms (ad with boxes of condoms; 49%) and brassieres (close-ups of women wearing the product; 52%) were remembered more correctly than ads for a utility company (hazy image of a woman taking a shower; 9%) and a food promotional organization (double entendre about cooking rice the first time; 15%). Again, the findings suggest that congruence between text or product with sexual information can influence encoding of ad text.

Regarding processing effects, levels of sexual content (high, medium, low) have been compared to each other as well as to no-sex conditions (Alexander & Judd, 1978; Grazer & Keesling, 1995; Judd & Alexander, 1983; Weller et al., 1979). With few exceptions, low-sex or no-sex conditions resulted in significantly higher brand-name recall scores than moderate- and high-sex conditions. The findings lead to the conclusion that ads with sexual content at any level, especially moderate and high levels, can interfere with the processing of brand information.

More recent research on cognitions and processing, as measured by thoughts, suggests that sexual images motivate more processing of the images than the message in the ad. For example, Severn et al., (1990) found that a visual sexual stimulus resulted in more thoughts about the sexual image than about the message. Alternately, thoughts about the message were higher in the no-sex condition. Participants in the study consisted of 180 18- to 26-year olds enrolled in marketing classes. No sex of respondent differences were reported in the researchers’ analysis. It is likely that processing resources (e.g., focused attention) are directed toward sexual content in the ad rather than the message, because sexual images are salient and vivid, as well as more appealing and motivating to process.

Overall, conclusions from sex-in-advertising processing research suggest that (a) sexual information has a relative advantage at attracting attention to the ad, (b) viewers are more likely to encode and ultimately remember sexual images in the ad, (c) encoding of text within the ad is mixed, but more likely to be processed if integrated with the sexual content, (d) encoding of brand names in ads containing sexual content is inhibited, and (e) thoughts and cognitions are directed toward the sexual elements in the ad rather than the message. These conclusions lend general support to the distraction hypothesis such that sexual information in advertising attracts attention, but typically to the detriment of the sponsoring organization. It is important to note, however, that nearly all of this research involves testing respondents after only one exposure to the ad. This qualification, and other design issues discussed later in this article, should be kept in mind when considering these conclusions.

Emotional Response Effects

Advertising researchers also have looked to emotion (e.g., generalized arousal, affect) in their attempts to ascertain the effects of sexual information on advertising responses. Early studies assessed opinions and ad evaluations of various levels of sexual imagery (e.g., appealing, offensive, appropriate; Belch et al., 1981; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979). For example, undergraduate respondents shown sexual ad images (women, men, and couples in varying degrees of clothing) indicated their reactions to the images on single-item scales (galvanic skin conductance was also assessed by Belch et al.). Michael LaTour and colleagues extended this work, not by altering the method, but by applying the attitude-towardthe-ad concept to explain consumer responses to sexual imagery in ads (for review, see LaTour, 1990; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; LaTour & Henthorne, 2003; LaTour, Pitts, & Snook-Luther, 1990). Attitude toward the ad is an affective evaluation of an ad that can influence feelings about the brand and purchase intention (Muehling & McCann, 1993). As individuals view ads on television, in magazines, or through new media, they form favorable or unfavorable feelings toward the ad that can influence other important variables (e.g., attitudes toward the brand, purchase intention). These responses are more likely to occur in purchase situations characterized as low risk (inexpensive), low involvement (no personal importance), or with new or unknown products.

Assuming that important components of emotion consist of arousal and affect (Mehrabian & Russell, 1974), sex in advertising has elicited such responses in research. What is most significant about the influence of sexual information on persuasion is the arousal and affect it evokes in the receiver, and the effects of these responses on information processing. In this article, arousal is defined and referred to as “a continuous response ranging from energized, excited, and alert” to “calm, drowsy, or peaceful” (Lang, Dhillon, & Dong, 1995, p. 314; Mehrabian & Russell, 1974). This notion of physiological arousal as a level of alertness or activation is widely used in research.

LaTour (1990; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; LaTour et al., 1990) hypothesized that arousal and affective reactions to sexual information would result in similar attitudinal response to the ad. Using Thayer’s (1978) two-factor arousal model, LaTour (1990) found that arousal increased in intensity as the level of sexual explicitness of images in ads increased. If respondents experienced general activation in response to the sexual image (positively valenced arousal), they also had more positive attitudes toward the ad. On the other hand, if respondents experienced tension (negatively valenced arousal), they negatively evaluated the ad. In this study, arousal was measured with Thayer’s (1967) Activation-Deactivation adjective checklist. Earlier research offers similar conclusions to those found by LaTour (Belch et al., 1981; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979).

In LaTour’s studies (LaTour, 1990; LaTour et al., 1990; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993), the sex of the respondent moderated responses, perhaps because the sexual stimuli was the image of a progressively unclothed woman. The findings were such that as nudity increased, males experienced more general activation (positively valenced arousal), and females experienced more high activation/tension (negatively valenced arousal). Similarly, Belch et al. (1981) found that both males and females experienced increased arousal as nudity increased, but that ad images of the opposite sex were evaluated more favorably. Overall, sex-in-advertising research shows that self-reported general arousal increases as sexual explicitness increases and that affective reactions are moderated by respondent sex and sex of the model. Although sexual elements evoke general arousal, evidence indicates that arousal varies as a function of the sexual explicitness of the ad (Belch et al., 1981; LaTour, 1990; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979). For example, Belch et al. (1981) and LaTour (1990) found a direct relationship between explicitness of the sexual appeal and general arousal.

Findings support the notion that attitudinal responses to sexual information influence responses to the ad and to the brand. Research shows that, at least with both female and male undergraduate respondents, sexual ads are more positively evaluated than nonsexual ads (Reichert et al., 2001; Severn et al., 1990). LaTour and Henthorne (1993) found that attitudes toward the ad were significantly more positive for the high-sex condition compared to the no-sex condition. Other research has shown a nonsignificant advantage for sexual ads in terms of positive evaluations of the ad (Belch et al., 1981; Bello et al., 1983). In a test of adult respondents, attitude toward the ad was more favorable in response to a moderately sexual image of a heterosexual couple compared to a highly sexual image of a couple (LaTour & Henthorne, 1994). Differences may have been caused by the age differential between respondent samples.

Conclusions are mixed from research that reports effects of sex and attitudes toward the brand. Evaluations of products in sexual ads are significantly more positive than for the same product in nonsexual ads (Dudley, 1999; Smith & Engel, 1968). As previously described, LaTour and Henthorne (1994) found that a brand of jeans was more favorably evaluated in the moderate-sex condition compared to the high-sex condition. Different from most studies, LaTour and Henthorne’s sample consisted of adults solicited in a mall. As a result, respondents were older (M = 34.3) and almost half were married (48%). Several studies report no conclusive findings with regard to attitudes toward the brand (Bello et al., 1983; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; Peterson & Kerin, 1977; Severn et al., 1990; Simpson et al., 1996). These findings suggest that sexual content in ads can influence evaluation of the brand (or product), but that the relationship is not as strong as the link between sexual content and evaluations of the ad. This may be because brands have extrinsic attributes that are likely to evoke evaluations and inferences independent of the surrounding image.

Behavioral Response

Although there have been few hypothesized expectations with regard to sex in advertising on behavior, there is some indication that sex may influence behavioral intentions. Regarding sex-in-advertising investigations, purchase intention-a common measure of behavioral intention in the marketing literature-was formally reported in at least four studies involving sex and no-sex comparisons. In three of the studies, the pattern indicated that ads with sexual information consistently produced higher levels of purchase intention then their nonsexual counterparts (Dudley, 1999; Grazer & Keesling, 1995; Severn et al., 1990). For example, Dudley (1999) found that a suntan lotion brand featured in sexual ads was more likely to stimulate purchase and usage interest than the same brand in a product-only ad. Dudley’s sample consisted of 386 female and male undergraduate marketing students, although no respondent sex differences were reported. The fourth study (Bello et al., 1983), however, showed no significant difference between the sex and no-sex condition. In the study, two versions (provocative/less provocative) of a Calvin Klein jeans commercial were compared. Variation in sexual explicitness also appears to influence purchase intention. For example, moderate appeals appear to stimulate higher purchase intention than high-, low-, or no-sex conditions (Grazer & Keesling, 1995; LaTour & Henthorne, 1994).

Related research supports a behavioral-intention effect for ads with sexual content. For example, Reichert et al. (2001) found a small but significant (Cohen’s d = .13) overall effect for sexual images on persuasion for different social marketing advocacy ads (e.g., ads encouraging safe sex, condom use, exercise, skin cancer prevention, etc.). Persuasion was measured with a set of affective, cognitive, and behavioral items. Overall, undergraduate respondents (topics were chosen for their relevance to the sample) were more likely to adopt the recommended belief or action when it was accompanied by a sexual image. In a related study, sexual commercials promoting condom use stimulated more intentions to use (and take) condoms after viewing than a nonsexual control commercial (Struckman-Johnson, Struckman-Johnson, Gilliland, & Ausman, 1994).

Sexual information in persuasive contexts may exert an influence in two ways. First, the positively valenced arousal evoked by sexual imagery may influence intentions by providing a stimulus for action. As an energizer, arousal stimulates behavioral intention. The affect evoked by sexual content can supply direction to the intention. For example, positive affect signals approach, and negative affect signals avoidance. Messages that evoke positively valenced arousal (e.g., sexual information) may affect purchase intention by motivating the consumer toward the stimulus and the associated product. At this point in the research, with purchase intention tapped only after immediate exposure to the ad, sexual cues have only been shown to prompt immediate intention.

Second, emotional effects may explain persuasion by means of higher order thought distraction. Preliminary evidence shows that sexual content can reduce the systematic, rational cognitions that mediate persuasion. Research by Reichert et al. (2001) found that sexual appeals for social marketing topics were more persuasive, although cognitions were inhibited (support and counterarguments). If cognitions are inhibited, the viewer is more likely to be influenced by peripheral cues associated with the message (e.g., positive feeling, images, and heuristics). The emotion evoked by the sexual image may inhibit the cognitive responses that mediate persuasion, whereas the emotional response serves as a heuristic that could influence action. More research is needed in this area, especially given the increased interest in emotion and persuasion (Dillard & Wilson, 1993).

To summarize, emotional responses evoked by sexual information play an important, although not fully understood, role in the applied context of sex in advertising. Sex evokes generalized arousal and, depending on several variables such as context, prevailing tone, and respondent characteristics, also evokes positive or negative affective reactions. Responses to sexual information serve to attract attention that can influence brand information processing. In addition, emotional responses can influence attitudes toward the ad and toward the brand, and appear to influence purchase intention and persuasion, although explanations are still formative. In the advertising context, persuasion may be influenced by affective and arousal-based responses that serve to provide generalized motivation toward the stimulus, as measured by purchase intention. Behavior may be affected by an emotional response that discourages reasoned thought, causing the receiver to be more susceptible to the advertised appeal. Research that serves to differentiate these processes will prove beneficial to researchers attempting to understand how emotional elements (e.g., sexual images, fear appeals, humor) influence persuasion.

Other Research Considerations: Relevance, Respondent Sex, and Personality

Rarely do social science variables exist in isolation. For example, contextual (product relevance) and individual-difference variables have been shown to moderate the effects of other variables, especially responses to sex in advertising. The variables discussed in this section, product relevance, respondent sex, and respondent personality, influence the processing and evaluative outcomes of sexual ad appeals and deserve further elaboration through research.

Product Relevance

It is clear that sex is used for certain types of products and not others. Perusal of magazines reveals that sexual models in provocative poses and revealing clothing are present in ads for fragrances, designer clothing and accessories, health and beauty products, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages. Rarely, however, is sexual content present in ads for banking for financial services, medicine, and home computers. Formative evidence suggests that sexual content is more prevalent in ads for product categories that represent positive purchase motivations (entertainment, health/hygiene, beauty, and fashion), especially those that represent high involvement (Reichert, Morgan, & Mortensen, 2000). More important, however, is an exploration of reactions to ads containing sexual content for products not traditionally associated with sex.

Relevance, the appropriateness of the link between the product category and the use of sex, is an important variable that needs further study. In most studies, sex has only been tested for product types that are congruent with sex or for which sex is a commonly used selling strategy. For example, consider the following products that have been tested in sexual appeal research: designer jeans (Bello et al., 1983; LaTour & Henthorne, 1994), fragrances (LaTour, 1990; Reichert et al., 2001), liquor (Grazer & Keesling, 1995), cigarettes and automobiles (Reid & Soley, 1981, 1983), and suntan lotion (Dudley, 1999).

Only two studies have directly examined the effect of relevance and sexual ad imagery on consumer evaluations (Peterson & Kerin, 1977; Simpson et al., 1996). Peterson and Kerin examined levels of female nudity in ads and product relevance. Their study was a 2 (relevant/irrelevant product) x 4 (control, demure, suggestive, nude model) between-subjects design with evaluations of the ad, product, and manufacturer as dependent variables. The two products were body oil (relevant) and a ratchet-style wrench set (irrelevant). The findings were such that evaluations were more positive for the relevant product, especially as explicitness increased. In other words, as nudity increased in ads for the irrelevant product, evaluations of the ad, brand, and manufacturer decreased. In addition, there was a sex-of-respondent main effect such that male respondents’ evaluations were more positive overall, suggesting that backlash (negative responses) to sexual ads, especially ads that feature unclothed women, will be less pronounced if males are the target audience.

Simpson et al. (1996) conducted a partial replication of Peterson and Kerin’s (1977) study, using a male model in the ads instead of a female model. Similar to the Peterson and Kerin findings, there was a sex-of– respondent effect in this study: female responses were more favorable then male responses as more of the model’s body was displayed (shirtless, nude). Overall, evaluations of the advertiser, ad, and brand in the nude condition were lower for the wrench set (irrelevant) than the body oil (relevant) condition. No clear pattern of evaluative differences was evident between the two products in the control, low-sex, or moderate– sex conditions, however.

Overall, the findings from these studies indicate that relevance between sexual content and product-type can moderate evaluations of ads, brands, and manufacturers. With regard to product relevance, it appears that the closer the link between sexual content and the product, the more favorable the evaluation. At this point, the two studies provide clear conclusions, but more research is needed to solidify generalizations about the use of sex for types of products beyond body oil and wrenches.

Respondent Sex and Other Demographic Variables

A discussion of the effects of sex in advertising would be incomplete without examining the role of audience differences. Evidence suggests that groups of individuals vary in their reactions to sexual stimuli (Morrison & Sherman, 1972). Hence, the following variables should be considered when researching or constructing persuasive messages that contain sexual information.

Respondent sex. Sex of the respondent has proven to be an important determinant of evaluations and interpretations of sexual stimuli in advertising. Some of these finding were discussed in the previous section (e.g., product relevance; Simpson et al., 1996). Regarding research specific to respondent sex differences and sexual appeals, a consistent finding is that both females and males evaluate the depictions of the opposite sex more favorably (Belch et al., 1981; Judd & Alexander, 1983; LaTour, 1990; LaTour & Henthorne, 1993; Peterson & Kerin, 1977; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979, Simpson et al., 1996; Smith, Haugtvedt, Jadrich, & Anton, 1995). In addition, evaluations of the opposite/same sex are usually reflected in evaluations of the ad and brand (Simpson et al., 1996; see also LaTour, 1990). Although respondents evaluate the opposite sex more favorably, it appears that females evaluate sexual images of women more favorably than males evaluate same-sex depictions of sexualized men (Dudley, 1999). There are exceptions to this finding, however (see Jones et al., 1998).

In cases where both sexes are depicted in an ad (e.g., heterosexual couples engaged in sexual behavior), female and male participants respond similarly (Reichert et al., 2001; Severn et al., 1990; Smith et al., 1995). Related findings in the social psychology literature indicate that males and females are equally sexually aroused by sexual material depicting heterosexual couples (Fisher & Byrne, 1978; Rubinsky, Eckerman, Rubinsky, & Hoover, 1987). In addition, the hypothesis that romantic love or a committed relationship is a prerequisite for female sexual arousal has not been supported (Quackenbush, Strassberg, & Turner, 1995; see Dekker & Everaerd, 1989, for review). Findings suggest that both sexes have similar responses to sexual stimuli involving visual images of heterosexual couples. Indeed, Belch et al. (1981) found that there was little difference between male and female responses to ads featuring sexually suggestive couples, but there were significant evaluation differences to same-sex depictions.

Male responses to sexual ad content exhibit a pattern of positive evaluations that become more pronounced as nudity and explicitness increase (e.g., LaTour & Henthorne, 1993). Female responses, however, exhibit a curvilinear pattern such that both demure and highly explicit depictions evoke lower evaluations than models that are moderately explicit (Belch et al., 1981; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979). In survey research, females generally report sexual ad depictions to be more offensive and less effective for them than do males (Alexander & Judd, 1986; Fetto, 2001).

Recent research suggests that males and females share some similarities, but also some differences, in what they consider sexual in advertising (Reichert & Ramirez, 2000). Undergraduate females were more likely to report depictions of interaction between models as sexual (28%) than were males (6%). Alternately, males used more physical descriptors of models (e.g., attractiveness, physique, and type of clothing) than females. Although males (71%) mentioned more physical characteristics, physical characteristics were important to women (58%) as well. References to models’ movements and nonverbal behavior were also important to both females (42%) and males (37%). The pattern of findings in this study and those described in this section suggest that females and males differ in their reactions to some types of sexual stimuli and are similar in other respects. Research employing sexual stimuli should consider sex of respondent and its influence on evaluations of sexual ad content. Of past sexual content effects studies, approximately 75% included both female and male respondents. Of the remaining 25%10, only male respondents were tested, and all but one of those studies were reported before 1984.

Demographic variables. There is evidence that other individual differences variables can influence reactions to sexual stimuli. Within the advertising context, it appears that age of respondent influences responses. In survey research, college-age adults responded more favorably to the use of sex in advertising than did older adults (Johnson & Satow, 1978; Wise, King, & Merenski, 1974). A recent market survey conducted for American Demographics revealed that 41% of young adults were more likely to buy clothes if sexual images appeared in the ad, compared to the 42% of retired individuals who reported being offended by the use of sex in advertising (no sampling technique or respondent characteristics were reported; Fetto, 2001). It appears that the tolerance for evaluation of sexual content in advertising decreases as respondent age increases.

Regarding religious differences, Catholic women were found to evaluate the existence of sex in advertising more positively than either Southern Baptists or Methodists, as did nonattending males compared to more frequent church attendees (only these religions were included in the report; Alexander & Judd, 1986). In the same study, education level, size of hometown, and media consumption habits were also linked to attitudes toward sex in advertising, although there was no clear pattern of findings. Attitudes about the use of sex in advertising moderate responses as well. Generally, the more favorable the respondents are toward sex, sex portrayals in advertising, and sex-role orientation, the more positive their evaluations of nudity in advertising (Mittal & Lassar, 2000; Sciglimpaglia et al., 1979). These findings suggest that an individual’s reactions to sexual appeals are partially determined by age, religious preference, and opinions about sexual content in mainstream media.

Sex-Related Personality Variables

An individual’s affective reaction to sexual stimuli should moderate his or her evaluations of sexual information in advertising. Researchers are beginning to investigate the relationship between sex in advertising and sex-related personality variables (Gould, 2003). Three such concepts have received research attention thus far; they include erotophobia/philia, sex guilt, and sexual-self schema. The bulk of this research has examined reactions to condom ads and sexual health public service announcements.

Helweg-Larson and Howell (2000) sought to determine the effect of erotophobia on responses to condom-use public service announcements. Erotophobia/philia is believed to be a learned disposition to respond to sexual cues along a negative-positive dimension of affect and evaluation (Fisher, 1986). The disposition is derived from an individual’s exposure to sex-related restrictiveness and punishment during socialization (Fisher, Byrne, White, & Kelley, 1988). These determinants lead to avoidance versus approach responses to sexuality in a wide range of situations. As predicted, Helweg-Larsen and Howell found that erotophilics were more comfortable with the condom ads; contrary to predictions there was no overall difference in persuasion toward condoms and condom advertising.

Smith et al., (1995) examined the effects of respondent sex and sex guilt on responses to ads containing various levels of female/male nudity. Sex guilt indicates the degree to which a person experiences guilt when thinking and/or behaving sexually (Mosher, 1960). For example, individuals experiencing high levels of sex guilt are likely to experience negative feelings. In the advertising study, low-sex-guilt participants experienced more favorable affective reactions to sexual ads than did high-sex-guilt participants. Other findings were mixed or revealed no differences between low- and high-sex-guilt groups. The lack of significant findings may have been the result of relatively small sample sizes within each condition (n = 14-18), as opposed to absence of an effect. Further study is needed to determine if sex guilt has an effect on responses to sexual ads.

Alden and Crowley (1995) sought to determine whether college students differing on sex guilt also differed in responses to print ads for condoms. The study revealed that sex guilt did affect processing, retention, and evaluations of communications regarding condoms. At the same time, gender appeared to moderate some of the effects. For example, high-sex-guilt females recalled significantly less information about the ad than did low- and moderate-sex-guilt women. Regardless of sex, individuals who exhibited high sex guilt found the condom ad less informative, reported more negative attitudes toward the ad, and held more negative attitudes toward the brand.

Similarly, a person’s sexual self-schema, defined as cognitive generalizations about sexual aspects of one’s self (Andersen & Cyranowski, 1994; Anderson, Cyranowski, & Espindle, 1999), has been shown to covary with a variety of sexual behaviors as well as erotophobia/philia and sex guilt. Sexual-self schema provides an indirect indicator of sexual activities and interpersonal relations, and it has shown utility in predicting viewers’ reactions to sexual stimuli in advertising. For example, Reichert and Fosu (in press) found a positive correlation between females’ self schemas (sex positive) and attitude toward the ad (r = .40) and interest in the brand (r = .27) after they viewed a sexual television commercial. There was no relationship between schema and purchase intention, however. As the study indicates, individuals with positive schemas may be more receptive to, and evaluate more positively, persuasive appeals that contain sexual themes and imagery.

Opportunities for Future Research

Whereas sex in advertising research has contributed substantially to the understanding of how sexual information affects consumers, much still remains to be known. Further investigation that considers conceptual issues has the potential to advance knowledge of sexual appeal effects beyond the findings reviewed in this article. In addition, attention to methodology can improve the generalizability and congruity of findings with advertising practice.

Conceptual Issues

One concern is with the relatively narrow perspective with which researchers have investigated the effects of sex in advertising. As previously mentioned, nearly all research has addressed the effects of scantily clad women on processing and evaluative responses. The findings are informative, but they also serve to constrain discussion of other means through which sex effects can occur. For example, inherent in previous research is the assumption that sexual information is distinct and separate from the persuasive message in ads. It assumes that sexual content is placed in the ad with no purpose other than to attract attention and manipulate emotional responses. Although true in many cases (few researchers have asked advertisers why sex is used in advertising), in reality sexual information is often an integral component of the advertised message. In some cases, sexual outcomes as a result of using the brand is the message in advertising.

Sex is often integrated into advertising as a purposeful selling strategy. For one, sexual content is woven into the reasons why consumers should consider buying a product. Kool cigarettes, for example, ran a campaign in the latter 1990s featuring attractive women staring at men holding packs of Kool cigarettes. The viewer’s perspective was from right behind the man’s hand so that all the viewer saw of the man was his hand holding the cigarette pack. The suggestively dressed women in the ads were physically attractive and showed interest in the man with the Kools. The message in this ad was that cigarettes, particularly Kools, are part of the attraction formula. The visual argument is that men who smoke Kools are desirable to women, especially the type of women who look like those in the ad. The Kool ads are examples of sex in advertising, but sexual content is not just an attention Better, it is at the core of the reason for buying the brand.

Lambiase and Reichert (in press) argued that researchers need to consider the use of sex as an appeal. To stimulate research, Lambiase and Reichert identified three ways that sex is rhetorically integrated into ad messages: (a) sexual attractiveness for the consumer, (b) likely engagement in sexual behavior (and more enjoyment from these encounters), and (c) feelings of being sexy or sexual (sex-esteem). In the Kool cigarette example, the argument is that Kools can enhance the sexual attractiveness of the consumer. In other ads, it is often argued that consumers who use the brand can expect sex-related behavioral outcomes. Consider ads appearing in 1937 for General Cigar Company’s White Owl brand. The company posted billboards across the United States illustrating the benefit of its cigars-men being kissed by beautiful women. Through laboratory research, the company discovered its cigars contained fewer substances that caused bad breath (“Confidential Case History,” 1961). To demonstrate this competitive advantage, the J. Walter Thompson agency created provocative images of passionate kissing. As a result of the sexualized strategy, White Owl sales increased the first year of the campaign. The sexual behavior certainly attracted attention, especially in the 1930s, but the brand promise of increased sexual outcomes resonated with cigar smokers (and women, perhaps). Future research examining the role of sex-associated appeals will contribute by helping to illuminate the full effects of sex in advertising.

Another conceptual concern is that sexual images may function to alter consumers’ meanings of brands. In an often overlooked study (Smith & Engel, 1968), sexual imagery was reported to influence objective and evaluative perceptions of an automobile. Two automobile ads were identical, except that one ad featured a scantily clad women standing next to the car. The researchers conducted 120 door-to-door interviews asking adults in a large housing development in New Brunswick, New Jersey to evaluate the ads in a simple between-subjects design. Each group contained 60 respondents (35 males, 25 females) age 35 to 44. Comparison of responses revealed that the car with the woman was perceived as more appealing, more lively, and more youthful. In addition, the car with the female model was rated as better designed, faster, more expensive, and less safe than the car without the model. Females’ responses were similar to those of males. In addition, a debriefing revealed that respondents were hardly even aware of the women in the ad, much less affected by her presence. The researchers concluded that the decorative woman, a standard feature in automobile ads at the time, did more then attract attention, she influenced individuals’ objective perceptions of the automobile.

An opportunity also exists to employ persuasion and marketing theory to understand how sexual information operates in advertising. Over 20 years ago, advertising researchers lamented the lack of theory used in sexual content effects research: “Little thought seems to have been given to those theoretical concepts which may be useful in understanding the effectiveness of sexually oriented ads” (Wilson & Moore, 1979, p. 55). Although research since then has employed information processing and attitude-toward-the-ad concepts, other approaches such as Elaboration Likelihood Model and priming theory may prove helpful for illuminating the effects of sexual content in advertising.

In summary, sexual imagery may be influencing the interpretations and meanings associated with advertised brands. Not only do desirable models catch the attention of consumers, distract them, and evoke affective responses, the products in sexual ads may be viewed as more exciting and electrifying than those in ads with more mundane stimuli. Other than Smith and Engel’s (1968) exploratory study, little research exists to document these effects.

Research Issues

When building on past research, attention to research methods and considerations could lead to studies with improved external validity. Unlike real-life viewing situations, data measuring responses to sex in advertising are produced in tightly controlled settings. Standard research methods typically involve a one-exposure lab or group testing situation. Respondents, usually students, view an ad representing one of the test conditions as it is flashes on a screen. After several seconds, the ad is removed, and respondents are instructed to record their responses, whether they be emotional indicators or recall of the brand name.

In reality, ad viewing is very different from the research context. Instead of only one exposure, media planners arrange media buys so that targeted viewers see coordinated campaign messages multiple times. Viewers are exposed to the ad(s) at least three times-typically more. Whereas internal control is an important research goal, testing contexts differ immensely from actual viewing situations. Advertising is often avoided by viewers, and exposure conditions can be characterized as passive (Thorson, 1990). It is difficult to conduct research in an environment that approximates actual viewing scenarios, but until discrepancies are reduced, however, results will be incongruent with real-life effects.

Respondents sampled in sex-in-advertising research pose another challenge. Advertising, by its very nature, is directed toward a carefully specified target audience. Audiences targeted by national advertisers are defined by demographic, psychographic (segmentation based on values, personality, and lifestyles), and usage characteristics. Ad creators work to create messages with the target audience’s attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, and cultural considerations in mind. In academic research, convenience samples consist of student groups and adults solicited at mall– intercepts. These sampling practices, although appropriate in theoretical research, violate fundamental advertising principles concerning messages targeted to carefully specified audiences. Attention to audience characteristics can only improve future research and influence the interpretation of future findings.

Sexual meaning is an important but neglected topic in this body of research. Consumers make sense of their world by piecing together available information. With advertising, this means that consumers make judgments about the product (e.g., who it is for, what types of people use it) based on images in the ad. Sexual images can contribute to those meanings by participating in promises about the benefits and outcomes of products. Sexual appeals often say to audiences, “You can achieve intimacy, romantic involvement, and enhanced sexual prowess if you buy and use this product.” Research that addresses the meaning in sexual ads will move the body of research beyond researchers’ heavy emphasis on processing effects.

Addressing these issues, as well as methodological concerns, will help to mend any credibility gap that exists between academic research and professional practice. For example, after reviewing the sex-effects literature, Courtney and Whipple (1983) concluded that the use of sex was a high-risk low-return advertising strategy. The researchers offered professionals the following caveat: “Advertisers would be well advised to … avoid overtly seductive, nude, or partially clad models” (p. 118).

Analysis of real-life examples, however, suggests that advertisers have paid little heed to Courtney and Whipple’s warning. Research shows that models/actors in ads are increasingly displayed in sexually explicit ways, and organizations employing sex in advertising provide verifiable evidence that sex can be effective. Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, Taster’s Choice, Guess Jeans, and Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo, among many others, can attribute much of their success to sexualized ad strategies. These brands have either increased sales or have returned from near bankruptcy with sexual media strategies. For each success story, however, there is an organization that failed with its sexual ad strategy because it alienated its consumer base or emphasized sex instead of brand features relevant to consumers.

Conclusion

The purpose of this review is to provide a comprehensive and integrative overview of social science-oriented sex-in-advertising research. Common types of manifest sexual content present in advertising, as well as those analyzed by researchers, were described and defined. In addition, relevant findings from two dominant research approaches were reviewed. Researchers have been concerned with (a) the distraction caused by sexual imagery in ads, and (b) the influence of emotional responses to sexual information on evaluations of the ad, brand, and purchase intention. Individual difference variables that have the potential to moderate responses were discussed; they included respondent sex and age, and personality variables associated with human sexuality. Moving beyond past research, areas for future research were also described. Investigations that conceptualize sexual content as a message component instead of an isolated, discrete element will help to more fully describe the nature of sexual content in advertising. Consideration of the potential for sexual content to influence brand meaning and consumer interpretations of products will also inform relevant effects research.

Although sexual content is more pervasive in contemporary advertising, citizens also report being turned off by sexual imagery in advertising (Dolliver, 1999). Future research that builds on past research to address this conundrum and address the issues described in this article can provide important answers and meaningful findings. Given the relatively small number of studies in this area over the past 40 years, additional research could have a sizable impact.

As a final note, compared to other bodies of advertising research, the number of investigations in this literature is modest. Of approximately 45 studies, 30 report effects, at least 10 report the prevalence of sexual media content, and 5 report opinion surveys regarding the use of sex in advertising. More surprising, no more than nine effects articles appear in any decade. One cannot help but wonder if the stigma of sex research influenced advertising researchers to pursue more socially acceptable endeavors (Bullough, 1994). It is unfortunate that understanding of such a ubiquitous appeal as sex in advertising has not progressed further than the work reported in this article. It is hoped that this review will provide a steppingstone for those interested in this area.

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Tom Reichert

University of Alabama

Correspondence should be addressed to Tom Reichert, PhD, Department of Advertising & Public Relations, Box 870172, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. (reichert@apr.ua.edu)

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