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?

You and Me, Baby, ain’t nothing but Mammals…

The Neuroscience of [making] Love

One of the most ground breaking shifts in neuroscience has been the acceptance that our brains are wired to connect with each other. Much of social-brain has been dedicated to using basic neuroscience to understand a variety of social interactions from our professional interactions all the way down to our most intimate interactions. Today our journey leads us to the pinnacle of our most powerful social interaction – love.

As a creature on this green earth we share one similarity with all the others animals and that is the desire to reproduce. The comfort level of expressing sexuality in this culture is cyclical. In one generation you had people making love in the mud while Jimmy Hendrix performed live on stage, but in the generation before that you had a riot on your hands if a woman’s skirt rose above her knee. Today sex and love are all around us. Pick up any magazine and there are tips about how to please your lover and what will drive the opposite sex crazy. It’s time to sort through the mess of pop culture and give you the neuroscience behind “getting it on.”

Mars, Venus, and Monkey Sex

What goes on in our brains in our most intimate moments? Science can now venture down that road to catch a glimpse of our brains activity in some of our most powerful personal moments. The first thing I want to tackle is the difference between men’s brains and women’s brains in relation to sexual perception, because what goes on in our brains during moments of passion actually differs between sexes. For the longest time it was a common belief that men were predominantly visually aroused while women on the other hand were cognitively and emotionally aroused. A raft of recent research has actually shown just the opposite.

Four groups were recently subjected to arousal testing: a heterosexual male group, a heterosexual female group, a homosexual male group, and a homosexual female group. All groups were exposed to different kinds of erotic video ranging from Bonobo Chimpanzees, to man on woman, man on man, and woman on woman. While the images were viewed fMRI testing allowed researchers to see brain activity of the subjects. As it turns out none of the four groups had a strong reaction to the Bonobo Chimp porn. Interestingly enough researchers discovered that heterosexual women’s arousal increased with the intensity of the sexual activity being viewed, regardless of who was in it.  Men on the other hand were far more physically selective with their arousal response, meaning that men are more particular in who arouses them. Likewise, lesbian women showed a particular arousal response like that of men.

A popular work of art made so because of the visual appeal of all sexes.

A popular work of art made so because of the visual appeal of all sexes.

Overall this study suggests that women are more flexible when it comes arousal then originally thought.  We’ve heard time and time again that “sex sells”.  This would go far in explaining future marketing campaigns based around revealing images designed to appeal to women. It should also be noted that in social relationships women are often more emotionally attuned than men, leading to the original theory that women rely more on emotions than physicality for arousal. Though there is some truth behind the emotion argument for women on the whole, what you see is what you get (aroused by).

Sexy WiFi

Some where right now a guy is showering with Axe Body Wash. When he’s finished he’ll towel off, get dressed, and then, if marketing holds true, he will get mauled by a pack of ravenous, horny, albeit very attractive women.  It’s kind of absurd to think that simple scents can have that powerful of a reaction with the opposite sex, but neural research is suggesting a secret nerve in the brain whose main role is to detect pheromones from our partners.

For the longest time in medicine it was believed that there were only 12 cranial nerves in the brain.  However a nerve has been discovered. It’s called nerve 0 or the Terminal Nerve. Interestingly enough all vertebrae mammals have this nerve in their brains, especially humans. This nerve in our brains is located at the front of the brain, right behind the forehead and above the nasal cavity. What is unique about the sense of smell in humans is that our perception of smell proceeds right to the part of the brain that processes it. In all other senses they proceed to the thalamus (relay station) and then to another part of the brain. This nerve may play a vital role in the detection of pheromones.

A pheromone is a chemical signal that triggers a natural response in another member of the same species. For the sake of keeping with the theme of this article, sex pheromones are believed to help encourage sexual activity when shared between two people. There have been colognes for men out there that promote the use of pheromones in their scent. First off if you purchased this cologne I feel sorry for you, and secondly in your attempt to get some you’ve been mislead. The range of pheromones is extremely limited. Indications are that people do exchange such secret pheromone messages, however you have to be really close to pass the message. Like, kissing close. If there is a connection between people and your intimately close the processing of your pheromones may what takes you to the next step. Pheromones could act like an unseen olfactory cupid – putting a romantic twinkle in the eye of a mate [ Scientific American Mind]. When you’re close enough for that good night kiss more might be going on in your brain than you originally thought.

You and Me, Baby, ain’t nothing but Mammals…

The sexual brain is an interesting brain. We’re all animals, essentially. Our needs are basic, and shared with our friends in the animal kingdom. Our new brain allows us to sometimes veto our most primal urges, however once those pheromones start flowing and our emotions kick in we’re really no different that any other animal on The Discovery Channel.

Sex Sells. Even when it comes to designing a Disney Princess. In a straw pole taken by my creepy friends they selected Princess Jasmine the most seductive of all princesses.

Sex Sells. Even when it comes to designing a Disney Princess. In a straw pole taken by my creepy friends they selected Princess Jasmine the most seductive of all princesses.