Thursday, April 8, 2010

Evolution and Advertising- Part 1: Sex Sells

It has often been said that sex sells, but rarely have we asked why?

It goes without saying that sexualised marketing is successful in capturing our attention. There is no doubt that sexual cues hold a unique salience when compared to other non-sexual cues. Sexual cues have been found to be so prominent, that they are salient for women who have reportedly low sexual desire (Conaglen & Evans, 2006). In an interesting study, Spiering et al. (2003) also report that responding to sexual stimuli in a task was influenced by sexual priming, while responding to non-sexual stimuli was not. It is logical that this unique salience of sexualised cues stems from our evolutionary origins, with the detection of such signals being vital in preparing to engage or indeed inhibit sexual behaviour (Conaglen & Evans, 2006). The ability to attend and respond to this information has clearly been fundamental in prolonging the existence of our species throughout time.

Further delving into the intricacies of sexual cues, research has illustrated that nonverbal cues such as eye contact and provocative clothing can heighten perceived sexual interest (Muehlenhard et al., 1986) and as a result, may be more salient than imagery with objects of sexual desire alone. Interestingly, it has also been found that the use of different colouring also has a significant aphrodisiacal effect. A recent study conducted by the University of Rochester (2008) discovered that women wearing red were rated as being more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women wearing different colours. One theory is that these biases originated in our primate ancestors, where baboons and chimpanzees redden conspicuously when nearing ovulation. We can see from the advertisement above, that a scantly clad Cindy Crawford, sporting a bright red dress, is engaging in clear eye contact with the observer, provocatively capturing our attention and maybe even selling some Pepsi. Clearly there are numerous non-verbal factors that may alter perceived sexual interest associated with an image, subsequently increasing its salience.

While it is relatively easy to understand that men and women may attend to and even be engaged in sexual advertising, an expanded view into the psyche of male and female sexuality has exposed even more information that can be utilised to benefit marketing campaigns.

Sexual Strategies Theory (SST) offers an account of the adaptive problems our ancestors confronted during the course of competitive evolution and presents a view of sexual psychology that has evolved as adaptive solutions (Buss, 1998). In short, STT indicates that men are only constrained by the number of fertile women they can inseminate (Buss & Schmitt, 1993), while women who invest and risk more in sexual engagement, require a degree of commitment and additional resources from a mate. Basically, men want casual recreational sex, while women require emotional intimacy and resource commitment.

In close adherence to SST, associations between evolutionary adaptation and contemporary advertising have been reported. Specifically, Dahl et al. (2009) report that women’s typical dislike of sexualised advertising is softened when the ad can be interpreted as commitment related. Thus, correlated more strongly with the underlying strategies of female sexuality. The male underware model above is a perfect example of this, his expression and gesture on the bed symbolising intimacy and a degree of commitment. Colour it appears, is not important.

Ultimately, the cliché that sex sells may be an oversimplification. It appears that it is not simply the evolutionarily relevant salience of sexual cues which may be utilised in advertising, but that further manipulation of the forms of sexual images that are included are also highly relevant when aiming to engage and attract different markets. When used appropriately however, it appears that sex may be able to sell just about anything!


Buss, D. M. (1998). Sexual strategies theory: Historical origins and current status. The Journal of Sex Research, 35(1), 19-31.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on mating. Psychological Review, 100(2), 204-232.

Conaglen, H. M., & Evans, I. M. (2006). Pictorial cues and sexual desire: An experimental approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Dahl, D. W., Sengupta, J., & Vohs, K. D. (2009). Sex in advertising: Gender differences and the role of relationship commitment. Journal of Consumer Research, 36.
Muehlenhard, C., Koralewski, M. A., Andrews, S. L., & Burdick, C. A. (1986). Verbal and nonverbal cues that convey interest in dating: Two studies. Behavior Therapy, 17, 404-419.

Spiering, M., Everaerd, W., & Janssen, E. (2003). Priming the sexual system: Implicit versus explicit activation. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 134–145.

University of Rochester (2008, October 28). Red enhances men’s attractiveness to women, psychological study reveals. ScienceDaily.

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