Actually, sex doesn't sell.

Sometimes not even if you're selling sex.

One of the oldest adages in advertising is: sex sells.

Marketers use hotties and hunks to shill everything from margarine to massive machinery. Here at BrainPosse, we're as guilty as anyone. Most of the magazine ads, brochures, websites, videos and newsletters we've done for boat manufacturers feature very attractive people, minimally attired to emphasize their physical attributes.

The use of sexually-suggestive imagery and/or language in advertising is so pervasive that there are innumerable studies on the phenomenon.

According to one, by Dr. Tom Reichert, of the University of Alabama's Department of Advertising and Public Relations, the sexual content of advertising is overwhelmingly visual.

That study and numerous others use the amount and type of clothing as the primary index of sexual suggestiveness. Most rely on the four-stage rating scale first put forward by researchers L. C. Soley and L. N. Reid in The Journal of Advertising Research: demure, suggestive, partially-clad and nude.

Surprisingly, the sexual content of magazine ads indicate a recent decline at the most extreme end of the spectrum. In parallel studies conducted in 1964, 1984 and 2004, female nudity in ads rose from 23.1% in 1964 to 37.9% in 1984, then fell to 17.5% in 2004. Male nudity rose from 5.5% in 1964 to 9.5% in 1984 then disappeared – 0% – in 2004.

Using the Soley and Reid scale, women are overwhelmingly more likely to be objectified in sexually-suggestive ads than men. In the 2004 survey, 67.5% of ads showing females had either partially-clad or nude women, while only 6.8% of ads showing males had partially-clad men (none had nude men).

It seems unlikely that 67.5% – or even 6.8% – of magazine ads were for products or services promising a sex-related benefit. So most of those suggestive ads are using what the academics call "low association" imagery or verbal insinuation. That is, the sexual content has little or no relevance to the product or service or the promised benefit to prospective customers. It is simply intended to draw attention to the advertising message (see the Paris Hilton spot for Carl's Jr.).

Presumably these low-association sexual content ads are based on the notion that once folks were drawn into the ad they read more, correctly identify the advertiser, attribute a persuasive benefit to the product or service and form an intent to purchase.

Because sex sells, right?

Maybe not. Recent news and new information have called that hoary adage into question. Read more at

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