Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Do ‘sex sells’ always work?

This is a print advertisement for a subcompact car produced by Ford's (an American multinational automaker) Indian advertising agency. This advert shows caricatures of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who is looking back from the driver's seat, smiling and giving the 'peace sign', and three voluptuous and gagged women with their hands and feet bound in the trunk of his car. The caption at the bottom of the ad says: 'Leave your worries behind with the Figo's extra-large boot'.

Of course, Ford and its ad agency had to apologise for showing this shocking, offensive and sexist advert despite the fact that this poster was never intended to be created and posted to the website ‘Ads of the world’ without approval. Although this advert was quickly removed and disowned by Ford, they were not able to avoid damage and attacks by women's rights groups for insensitivity.

However, even though this advert had been released in paid media, it would not have been an effective advert as offensive advertisements were found to negatively affect consumers' intention to purchase products (An & Kim, 2006). Consumers exposed to this kind of advertisement were likely to buy a similar alternative if available.

We could apply the findings of a study by Chang and Tseng (2013) to improvement the ad with the use of a sexual appeal. The researchers conducted a study investigating the effects of different types of sexual appeal on consumer reactions to an advertised product. Their participants were instructed to see explicit (overt sexual appeal), implicit (subtle sexual appeal) sexual images and non-sexual images (baseline) which advertise either a sexually related product (fragrance) or a non-sexually related product (baked goods). Their sensation seeking personality traits were also measured to see if it moderates the relation between advertising appeal type and product type. Following the conditions, their purchase intentions were assessed as the dependent variable using a Likert scale questionnaire.

Figure 1. Purchase intentions as the dependent variable.

As shown in figure 1, it was found that high sensation seekers presented with a non-sexually related product were more inclined to buy the product when exposed to the condition of the implicit sexual appeal than when they saw the explicit sexual or non-sexual images. However, the explicit sexual appeal was more effective than implicit or non-sexual appeals when the item was sexually related. With low sensation-seeking individuals, the non-sexually related product with the non-sexual appeal was more popular than those with explicit and implicit sexual appeals. When they were presented with a sexually related product, however, their purchase intentions were more positive in the condition of the explicit sexual appeal than the other two conditions, like high sensation seekers indicated.

The current advertisement attempts to sell a small car, a non-sexually related product. Thus, it would have been better if the advert had utilised an implicit sexual appeal (with high sensation seekers as the intended audience) or non-sexual appeal (low sensation seekers as the message recipients), rather than the overt and offensive sexual appeal, to promote the car. The old marketing cliché 'sex sells' may not work when companies try to sell a non-sexually related product.

An, D. C., & Kim, S. H. (2006, March). Attitudes toward offensive advertising: A cross-cultural comparison between Korea and the United States. Paper presented at the 2006 annual conference of the American Academy of Advertising, Reno, Nevada.

Chan, C. T., & Tseng, C. H. (2013). Can sex sell bread? The impacts of sexual appeal type, product type and sensation seeking. International Journal of Advertising, 32, 559-585.

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