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Despite What You Believe, Sex and Celebrities Don't Sell

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It has not been a good year for sex - especially as it relates to advertising. Two recent studies, reported in Fortune and Advertising Age, confirm what previous objective research has shown - sex does not sell.

What about celebrities? Companies pay them quite a lot, and they are used in roughly one-fifth of all ads. In fact, you will see a lot of them in numerous Super Bowl commercials. And those Super Bowl ads cost $4 to 4.5 million for 30 seconds of air time on TV and millions more to produce. As with sex, therefore, many assume that celebrities are effective at selling products.

Celebrities don't sell

When you peel back the onion and look at the data, you will find that, in so many cases, celebrities don't sell the product effectively. In the cases where they are effective, it is not because they are celebrities. It is because they are considered to be "expert" users of the products they are advertising.

Studies on celebrity endorsements

Ace Metrix tracks every nationally televised TV ad and provides syndicated data on its findings. Its study described in Ad Age showed that fewer than 12 percent of ads using celebrities exceeded a 10 percent lift. In fact, 20 percent of celebrity ads had a negative impact on advertising effectiveness. The post goes on to say that...

The bottom line is that good ads stand on their own, and this study empirically shows that a celebrity has little to no impact on an ad's effectiveness. In fact, regardless of gender or age, ads without celebrities out-performed ads with them.

Going back a little further in time, an Ipsos study reported by Media Post's Center for Media Research had similar results. This study found that celebrity ads had lower ratings for believability than non-celebrity ads. It also found that...

The message becomes more powerful when the celebrity endorsement carries 'expert' authority or relevance for the brand, such as an athlete for sportswear or equipment, a famous chef for a food product, or a racecar driver for tires or motor oil.

In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, here is what David Ogilvy (founder of Ogilvy Mather and considered to be the model for the Don Draper character in Mad Men) says about using celebrities in ads...

Testimonials from celebrities get high recall scores, but I have stopped using them because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product. What's more, they assume the celebrity has been bought, which is usually the case. On the other hand, testimonials from experts can be persuasive -- like having an ex-burglar testify that he had never been able to crack a Chubb safe.

Do you see a pattern here? Celebrities can be effective at selling a product if they are considered expert users of the product. Otherwise, it is most likely a bad investment to use them.

Getting back to sex

The subject of sex in advertising comes up with clients and students all the time. Many believe that sex sells even though there are so many cases when it does not. Why is it such a common belief?

  1. Reptilian Brain. Sexual desire is built into the reptilian brain. Because people's thoughts come from inside their own heads, they extrapolate their feelings to situations that do not apply.
  2. Heard repeatedly. Similar to many other misconceptions, people repeatedly hear that sex sells. As a result, they conclude that it must be correct.
  3. Gets attention. Whether it sells a product or not, many agree that sex will attract attention. The problem is that not all the attention is positive, and in many cases the attention is attracted away from, rather than toward, the product or brand.
  4. Taboo. In many circles where sex is taboo, it generates even more attention. Google Trends reported statistics related to this subject.
  5. Used a lot in advertising. Because a lot of well-known companies use sex in advertising, many assume it must sell or advertisers wouldn't use it. Many Super Bowl 2013 commercials reinforced this idea. If the assumers reviewed the data, they would not make these assumptions.

Sex is usually ineffective at selling the product

For products unrelated to sex, using sex to sell them rarely works. It can even backfire. In addition to the studies referenced above, a University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favorably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products. This study confirms the data David Ogilvy accumulated over his long and storied career in advertising. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, he says that sex sells only if it is relevant to the subject being sold. Advertising Professor Jef I. Richards from the University of Texas has a famous quote that corroborates Ogilvy's findings...

Sex sells, but only if you're selling sex.

There are many reasons why sex is not effective at selling products unrelated to sex. Some of the more important ones are listed below.

  1. Some are offended. Gratuitous sex in advertising has caused a growing chorus of people (especially women and a growing group of men) to be repulsed. Jack in the Box has been running commercials with sexual overtones over the past few years. A commercial for breakfast croissants has even been dubbed the Jack in the Box Viagra commercial. Then there is the Marry Bacon commercial and so many others.
  2. Gimmick. Many believe using sex to sell a product that is unrelated to sex is a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product.
  3. Distracts attention from product shortcomings. Others believe that the product must not have enough capabilities for the company to employ sex rather than product benefits to sell the product.
  4. People forget the product. Those that are attracted to the ad for reasons unrelated to the product benefits tend to remember what attracted them rather than the product.

Put them together (celebrities and sex) and what do you get?

If you put non-expert celebrities together with gratuitous sex in ads, such as Paris Hilton in the infamous Carl's Junior ad, you get the double whammy - the negative multiplier. Even so, you will get many that argue that such ads create viral pyramids and magnified attention from news and social media. And they are right about the attention. However, attracting more attention in a negative way, is not always good for a brand or long term sales and profits. After the Paris Hilton spot appeared, the stock of CKE, the parent company of Carl's Junior, went down 20 percent. Let's look at another case - the recent Go Daddy Super Bowl ad with super model Bar Rafaeli French-kissing a poor guy labeled as a tech nerd. According to Bluefin Labs, Go Daddy's ad generated the most negative social media attention of any ad with a 34% negative score. USA Today's ad meter pegged it dead last. More importantly, Go Daddy's brand image continues to take a huge beating from this commercial adding to past behavior. Of course, Go Daddy and a lot of others self-servingly point to a sales bump after the commercial aired. What they don't seem to understand is that running one's nails on a chalkboard is likely to get a sales bump when exposed to a large audience.

The more relevant question is what would the sales bump be if the ad focused on the benefits of Go Daddy rather than the sex/celebrity gimmick to attract attention? More importantly, as Jason Schwartz pointed out in his recent post on Business Insider. If one were to add up all the pluses and minuses from this commercial, it appears that Go Daddy may have actually lost $7 million.

It would be interesting, but difficult, to find out since Go Daddy is a private company.

Relevance is the issue

Too many companies use celebrities and sex without really thinking or understanding the effectiveness they will have in selling products. Hopefully, the data provided above will help you to decide whether or not it is worth the extra money to pay celebrities to endorse your products or use sex in your ads to sell burgers, drain cleaner, or salad dressing. I wouldn't recommend either (and certainly not both together) unless you are selling products related to sex or using celebrities that are recognized as expert users of the product.