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A woman in a bikini eats a burger, sauce dripping down her chest for a fast food commercial. A pair of jeans are advertised on a topless woman riding a horse. A man is dripping wet, abs glistening, and he stares into the camera with bedroom eyes. This is an ad for cologne.

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For decades, many advertisers have taken the “sex sells” route for enticing consumers to buy their products.

But is this really the most successful way to sell products? SuperDrug Online Doctor analyzed video and print ads to see how heavily sexual themes infiltrate various industries. They then surveyed more than 2,000 people to determine their thoughts on suggestive content in advertisements. This is what they discovered.

Analyzing Print And Video Advertisements

SuperDrug Online Doctor separated themes by general content, like family, kissing, and product-only. “Of sexually related themes, we designated three specific types: innuendo (suggestive language and/or photos – for instance, a close-up of a woman’s mouth); nudity (which does not necessarily imply sex); and sex (which refers to simulated intercourse). Female-only and male-only categories refer to images featuring a clothed woman or man as the sole focus of the ad,” they explained.

sex sells

The outcome? Coming in at 70 percent sexual content, fashion ads rely the most on “sex sells” than any other category, with 30 percent featuring nudity and 20 percent depicting simulated sex. Another 10 percent featured kissing and an additional 10 percent showed a scantily-dressed woman.

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As for beauty ads, half featured clothed women, while the other half featured a variety of levels of suggestion. Nudity made up 20 percent, sexual innuendo 10 percent, kissing 10 percent, and women in lingerie or a bathing suit 10 percent.

The food industry ads displayed 30 percent innuendos, with 10 percent even featuring nudity. Technology ads, however, didn’t feature any sexual themes. Auto industry ads focused primarily on products, but 10 percent had women in lingerie/bathing suits. Travel industry ads had 10 percent kissing and another 10 percent featured women in lingerie/bathing suits.

The Reality Of Advertising Themes

While the idea that “sex sells” has become well-known and accepted as one of, if not the, main way to entice consumers through advertising, breaking down advertisements by theme actually reveals that sexual themes don’t play that big of a part.

sex sells

In fact, 39 percent of ads only depict the product, while the second-most common feature a clothed woman, and the next biggest involves families. Nudity only appears in 9 percent of ads, sexual innuendo 7 percent, and simulated intercourse 3 percent.

Which Industry Is The Culprit?

So if we are mostly seeing products in ads, then where did we get this idea that sex sells? A survey found that 37 percent of people attribute this idea to fashion industries, while 29 percent of people believe it to be the beauty industry.

sex sells

Another 13 percent of people pointed the finger at the beverage industry, even though statistics reveal that a mere 10 percent of beverage ads feature sexual innuendos. As for food, while 40 percent of food industry ads depict sexual themes, only 6 percent of people thought this industry utilized sexual content in ads.

So What Really Sells?

When displaying two ads featuring products side-by-side, 60 percent of survey respondents picked the modest ads as the most compelling. These findings correlate with a recent study revealing that, while we believe sex sells, it is actually the opposite, with sales decreasing the more sexual the content is.

sex sells

The takeaway seems to be that, while some industries rely heavily on sexually suggestive advertising, this tactic is not the only one used, and though consumers certainly take notice, it isn’t necessarily prompting purchases the way we, or advertisers, originally assumed.


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