What Exactly about Sex is Selling you? Can Neuromarketing sort through the Clutter of Sexual Imagery?

It’s safe to say that our culture today is saturated with sexuality. Browse any magazine, surf any channel, and gaze up at any billboard and you’re bound to find a sexually progressive advertisement staring you in the face.  As long as there has been marketing there has been the playful, and even the not so playful, use of sex in advertisements to gain an advantage in the market place.  With sexual images all around us seemingly at every turn I am turning to neuroscience to help cut through the clutter of sexual marketing to find out what really works and what doesn’t.

Is that a Burger in your Swim Suit or are you just Happy to See Me?

This spicy ad for Carl's Jr. got people talking...

In 2006 Carl’s Jr. hit the airwaves with perhaps the most sexually charged advertisement ever for a fast food chain. The 30 second commercial featured Paris Hilton flexibly washing a Bentley with soapy water and then moved to her seductively eating a Spicy BBQ Burger on the hood of the car, all while wearing a very revealing swim suit. Some media outlets declared the ad “too hot for television”, but never the less the ad was declared a smashing success. To the untrained neuromarketing eye it would appear that sex does in fact sell, but it’s not as clear cut as marketers and consumers would like to think. In fact, Carl’s Jr. used several different avenues to enhance the success of their sexually based advertisement and they may have not even known it at the time.

The Physiology of Sex and its Influence on your Brain

Every purchase we make is a decision, and neuroscience in the past decade has done a great job of unraveling the mystery of how our brains make decisions. As it turns out our “old brain”, or reptilian brain, is our decision center. Despite having a highly evolved neocortex, it was an astonishing find to discover the part of our brain that holds the most weight in our decisions is a brain that we share with most other animals. The reptilian brain’s soul focus is to help us thrive and survive. Evolutionarily speaking our reptilian brain wants us to procreate, a lot. A major influencer of our reptilian brain is our limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for our emotions and coincidentally the part of the brain that houses the hypothalamic structure which itself is responsible for regulating sex drive amongst many things. Okay, so what the hell did I just say? The anatomy and physiology of our brain allows for our sexual drive and emotions to play a key role in influencing our decisions.

Is your Marketing Sexually Relevant?

Congratulations Felt, you just wasted money on your marketing

A lot of marketers run the risk of using sex to sell something that it really has no connection to, like this bicycle. This is a prime example of forcing sexual imagery into an advertising campaign. Honestly, how many bikini clad beauties do you see riding around on grandma bikes? The end result here will be failure. Subjects that were submitted to fMRI testing – real time brain scanning – showed that in sexually non relevant advertising the sexual imagery actually distracted them from the marketers’ message. In this particular advertisement sex is doing the opposite of selling because the only thing people are focused on is the hot chick in the bikini, not the bike. In the over advertised world we live in marketers make this mistake all the time. This brings up a good question: If sex is supposed to be relevant in marketing how did the ad featuring three unrelated and arguably non relevant items of Paris Hilton, a sexy carwash, and a burger work so well for Carl’s Jr.?

Our Brains Love a good Controversy

Carl’s Jr. didn’t just air a sexually explicit advertisement for their new burger; they stirred the pot and created controversy. Controversy is a story that is packed with high levels of emotion, and as we learned before emotion, like sex, is a key influencer of our decisions. Carl’s Jr. was wise to use Paris Hilton in their commercial. As an emerging household name at the time she was their anchor for gossip and controversy. With sex as the driving vehicle the ad got people talking, it got some people outraged, and in the end it led to people seeking out the advertisement to see what it was all about. Marketing mission accomplished.

In the 1990's this was considered racy, we may scoff at it now but back then it helped launch Calvin Klein Jeans to success

Supplementing sexuality with controversy is page right out Calvin Klein’s playbook.  This designer rose to new levels of success in the 1990’s by using sexual controversy to gain exposure and drive sales for his line of jeans. He used the famous face (and body) of Brooke Shields, his jeans, and consistent design to paint a progressive picture of in your face sexuality to gain exposure, and it worked. By the mid 90’s anyone who was anyone was sporting a pair of “Calvin’s”.  Today this tradition continues with Eva Mendez as the new face (and body, oh what a body) of Calvin Klein, but because our advertising world is so saturated with sex no one’s talking like they were in the early 1990’s.

When everyone uses sex to sell it's hard to stand out. You might think "if you wear Guess clothes, you'll be sexually desirable", but there is nothing about this ad that stands out. Young unknown beauty is all around us, selling us everything. I'm sorry to say Guess's marketing is falling on deaf ears.

To reach our brains marketing has to stand out and be different. In a world jam packed with sex the path to different has taken us to a very familiar place, the mirror.

The Jim & Pam Effect

Our brains adapt to our environments very quickly. The truth is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing the ultra beautiful and sexy selling us stuff that it is no longer working like it used to. To find out if this was true neuroscientists recently studied the fMRI scans of subjects as they browsed pictures of the ultra sexy and the average. As it turns out the brains of the subjects responded more favorably to the marketing images of people that they felt they had more in common with.

John Krasinski and Jenna Fisher helped make average the new beautiful

To best illustrate this point I turn to one of my favorite television shows, The Office. By entertainment industry standards John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are physically middle of the pack, at least at first impression. However, both actors have grown to become some of the most famous television and movie stars today and have even managed to evolve into sex symbols. On the show Jim and Pam are perceived as being “just like you or me”, but as a neuromarketer I can argue that they are at the right place at the right time from a perception stand point. Ask anyone on the street if they have more in common with the ultra beautiful Kate Moss or Jenna Fischer and you’ll get Jenna Fischer over and over again, and that matters to people because they can relate to her.

Who said Sexuality was just for the Ultra Beautiful?

The marketing strategy of using real relatable people was the same strategy that Dove used to drive their successful Real Beauty Campaign and stand out from every other hygiene company out there at the time. In doing so Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign got people talking because some of their ads showed average women in their underwear, something that society had not seen before. There marketing was salient because it was uniquely relatable and different, and at the same time it stirred up a bit of controversy – something that you need to do to go viral.

In a world the ultra beautiful Dove stood out by letting the beauty of real shine, and it worked.

Using sex to sell is a skill. You can’t just slap a picture of gorgeous woman next to product and magically sell it. Dove showed you don’t even to use a gorgeous woman. You have to take into account a lot of factors: The sexual relevance of your ad, the current environment of the market, story telling and controversy, and emotions (and this just relates to conceptual ideas, design is another discussion).  You probably won’t even notice most of the sexual advertising around you, but next time you’re stopped and find yourself staring at a particular sexual advertisement ask yourself, why did it just work?

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3 thoughts on “What Exactly about Sex is Selling you? Can Neuromarketing sort through the Clutter of Sexual Imagery?

  1. I don’t know that my theory is correct, but I think there’s something else besides the controversy selling that burger, and why sex worked in that ad, but not for others. Not that controversy doesn’t work…

    But what about that food and sex both reward the dopamine pathway? Or here’s a theory…hedonic hot spots. http://nro.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/12/6/500

    Perhaps sex works in the burger ad because the visual stimuli of the swimsuit clad Paris Hilton, helps to get the juices flowing along the same pathways that would make us hungry for a condiment packed hamburger?

    • Thank you for you visiting social-brain, and thank you for posting your thoughts and ideas. It means a lot to me. I got a chance to look into your theory in a bit more depth, and I think I have an answer regarding your pairing of sexual imagery with food, and the effects on dopaminergic pathways in the brain.

      The role dopamine plays in our brains is vast as there are numerous sub receptors for the neurotransmitter varying from pleasure, to cognition, and motor ability, etc. In regards to sex and food, the dopaminergic pathways mainly run through the “low road” of our brains or our mid-brain. Reward pathways run through our prefrontal cortex the “high road” in our brains.

      The role dopamine would play in reward sex and food paired is neurobiologically linked, meaning that the stimuli would have to directly affect our bodies. For example drugs are most commonly linked with dopamine because we ingest drugs, metabolize them, and thus feel the reward response in our brains. This is similar to food, because we ingest food and the physical act of eating (taste buds/chewing) is pleasurable to the human brain.

      Seeing a stimuli in these cases is not enough to significantly affect our dopaminergic pathways. A sexual image does grab our attention, but it is not enough to reward our brains in the way a physical act of passion would.

      I hope this helped. Thank your for taking time to read, and I wish you all the best. I always neuro based discussions. You can follow me on twitter @ktorres.

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