It’s a common phrase: ‘Sex sells’. It’s the go-to argument made by people who haven’t studied marketing. It is also untrue.
Sex is excellent at bringing a potential consumer’s attention, but most can’t remember what the ad was about, but will often like the brand less. A study by the University of Illinois showed that participants were no more likely to remember the brand the advertisement was about but were more likely to have a negative attitude towards the brand. The dislike is especially common in women, which is no surprise as women generally don’t like seeing objectifying images of women, and if your brand is trying to market itself to a wide audience, you’ve already lost around half of it.
Another thing to remember is that people are surrounded by plenty of sex already. The entertainment industry, for instance, is saturated with scantily-clad women and muscly men on film posters and songs with sexual lyrics. If sex sold a product by itself, none of these films and songs would bomb and that is clearly not the case. Katy Perry’s song ‘Bon Appétit’ failed to reach the top 40 despite a nudity-filled and sexually suggestive music video.
‘Showgirls’ may be a camp classic now but when it was initially released it bombed, earning less than $38 million worldwide despite its $40 million budget. Going by the logic of sex selling, this film should have paid back its budget in spades. It’s a film about strippers with lots of sex, raunchy dialogue and nudity. It also had the appeal of starring a former child actor, which should have added to its raciness and ‘therefore’ guaranteed a success. However, it was those sexual elements that contributed to its downfall. It received an NC-17 rating in the US and an R rating in Australia, both of which made it harder to gain an audience. Seeing a sexy trailer or poster may be appealing to the eye but that doesn’t ensure that people will feel comfortable going to the cinemas and trying to receive sexual gratification without being able to do anything about their arousal in this public place.
It is because of the public-private divide that no mainstream film being shown in cinemas and no heavily-regulated advertisement can compete with the sex appeal of free, discrete internet pornography. If someone wants to see a film that’s in cinemas because they think it might have a sex scene, they’re likely going to have to wait a while and listen to dialogue and plot to get to it. That’s a lot less convenient than going on the internet and finding whatever fetish your heart desires. This has led to almost 92 billion videos on Pornhub alone being watched in 2016. Sex may be able to sell sex but it doesn’t sell products that aren’t inherently sexual such as a mainstream blockbuster.
As for advertisements for products, there are regulations in place aimed at stopping children from seeing content that is too sexual for them, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority making major television networks put child-friendly programming during certain times during the day, including from 4 PM to 8:30 PM on weekdays. There is only so much sex appeal an ad is allowed to have during this time, so if someone wants to see something sexual, they may have to look elsewhere.
Marketing is a difficult field of study and no one has all the answers. Many things can contribute to a product or piece of media’s popularity such as the product’s quality or unique marketing, as opposed to the type of sexualisation that’s been seen a million times before. If sex really sold, there would be no need for marketing classes and every ad would be sexual. There’s clearly more to it than that, so let’s get rid of this old, untrue adage claiming that ‘sex sells’.