Katy Waldman: Study proves sex sells, but there are some rules

Dec 11, 2013
Business
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Being an advertiser is hard. On one hand, sex sells (and sells and sells). On the other, women sometimes take offense at slick ads, and then won’t buy your product, or let their boyfriends buy it. And before you know it there’s a Twitter campaign against your company and … oh lord.

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Yet a study in the journal Psychological Science shines a light on when it’s OK to objectify the female body in the name of Mammon. Researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs say women find erotically charged ads less distasteful when they promote very expensive items. We like our objectification classed up, thank you.

Vohs and her colleagues showed 87 male and female undergraduates 20-second commercials for women’s watches. Half the students saw ads featuring “majestic snowcapped mountains,” while the other half saw ads drenched in “explicit sexual imagery.” The prices of the watches varied randomly: either $1,250 (luxury) or $10 (bargain). When the researchers took participants’ emotional temperature after viewing the sexy clips, they found that women in the bargain group felt “more upset emotionally” than women in the luxury group. Women who saw sexual images paired with cheap watches also reported disliking the ads, while those who got mountains or sex-plus-extravagance reacted more neutrally.

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