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Does 'Sex Sell' long-term brand success?

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By Ethan Hanson


As marketers, we often ask "does sex sell?" More importantly, we should be asking, "does sex help drive my brand's long-term success?"

In an Advertising Week session a few weeks back on Neuroscience in Marketing, Ron Park, VP Analytics, Merkle, said "In order to truly maximize marketing effectiveness, we must create rewards for consumers by delivering on optimal relevance to the brand--and the brand experience--to each individual."

"Society drives people crazy with l
ust and calls it advertising," -John Lahr.

Park brings up several key points, but let's focus in on relevance. Think about the relevance in the case of the animal-rights organization PETA and the use of sexualized images of women used in advertisements. A study by Bongiorno, Bain and Haslam (2013) showed male participants had reduced intentions to support PETA after viewing the advertising. This decrease in interest was explained by the ironic dehumanization of the women in the advertisements, which objectification was counter to PETAs core brand positioning.

Context and relevance becomes king in positioning and content. Sadly, marketers are falling into the trap of applying the concept of "sex-sells" to any situation. Let's think about Carl's Junior, a fast-food hamburger chain who advocate of scantily clad women in advertisements. They are getting controversial commentary left and right. They've seen increased click rates, YouTube views and a lot of controversy around Super Bowl ads that seem to take it up a notch each year. But the question being asked is, will it bring long-term brand success?

Over the last several years I've had the chance to be a part of several hundred one-on-one consumer interviews, and gathered over 130,000 consumer survey respondents for a variety of brands in high tech, retail, financial services and health sciences. In this research I have yet to find sex-oriented content as a main intrinsic personal value drivers for brands that do not naturally play in this space.

We are seeing traditional intrinsic personal values such as "family", "achievement" and enhancing "self-esteem" remain high on the impact list for consumers both in B2C and B2B.

Dr. Renee Garfinkely a cognitive psychologist pointed out in an Iowa State University's research study that "viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after watching and even 24 hours later." Does sex sell in their short term? Possibly, but it seems in the long-term (25+ hours) the correlation is diminished. However, we are seeing the amount of ads focused in this area growing at a tremendous rate. A study by University Georgia shows that brands as a whole over a 20 year period have nearly doubled the amount of ads focused on sex.

If sex-oriented content isn't the right path for your brand then what is? The answer to this question is specific by brand, product, and industry all within in the context of the business problem you are trying to solve. But, we do know through research that the brands whose ads focus on the intrinsic personal values consumers are looking to connect with are seeing increased impact.

In addition to a personal value focus, the tie from product benefits to these personal value is just as important as getting the initial personal value right. Consumers long for the connections from product benefits to personal values to be made. How many times have you sat through a commercial and thought, 'who in the world is this commercial for and what are they trying to sell me?' As humans, we expect and thrive (consciously or unconsciously) for brands to connect their product benefits to our personal values and then back to the brand.

Reconfirmed in a recent study for a Fortune 500 company we found that success occurs in connecting the brands product benefits to the consumer's most important personal values. When the values of care for family, pride in accomplishment and peace of mind were connected back to the product benefits, they were able to increase ad effectiveness by 77% (or 335% lift). Each of the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) tracked were impacted positively when the connection was clearly made for the consumer.


So, do sex-oriented ads create long-term success of a brand? You determine - based on (1) the relevance to your brand and (2) the intrinsic personal values you're consumers are looking to connect with. Brands beware; do your consumer homework before spending money on proactive material to get short term publicity in spite of long-term brand success.

Come learn how major brands are navigating the web of consumer decisions in the Orange Juice market in our on-demand webinar on the Neuroanalytics of Marketing- Register here.

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