Does Sex Still Sell? Or Does It Do More Harm Than Good?

For the past nine years, Carl’s Jr. has been using female models to promote their burgers. Specifically, they have been using bikini-clad women who seem unaware of the distinction between fast food and the male anatomy.

If you can’t quite envision what I’m talking about, check out the company’s latest ad, featuring Paris Hilton and Hannah Ferguson:

Andy Puzder, CEO of Carl’s Junior, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, “We’re the ‘young, hungry guy’ brand.” Clearly, that’s whom this hypersexual ad is targeting. After 41 seconds of face-to-meat, meat-to-bikini contact, 18–34-year-old straight men must be picking their jaws off the floor. Or, at least, that’s how the theory goes. But does that actually result in more sales?

First, some history

Erotic advertising isn’t exactly new. After all, the old adage “sex sells” had to come from somewhere.

“Since there have been men buying, there have been ads using women as the bait,” says M.J Rose, advertising expert and founder of AuthorBuzz. “Sexist and demeaning advertising isn’t something new—it is in fact the oldest ploy in the book.” For example, Calvin Klein made headlines in 1995 with a series of ads that used very young-looking models posing in what seemed to be a basement.

The sad thing is that while this kind of advertising was controversial a few years ago, it’s par for the course nowadays. In an era where American Apparel is pushing the boundaries of good taste and creepiness on a regular basis (warning: NSFW), brands are starting to push the boundaries further and further.

“I wish it weren’t so, but it’s a way to get attention—and even negative attention is attention,” Rose explains. “The more crowded the playing field, the more outrageous the ads tend to get.”

Science weighs in

Sure, this kind of provocative advertising is memorable. But is it actually effective? Do viewers really remember the name of the brand behind the burger strip tease, or do they simply have images of Paris Hilton running through their head?

A surprising number of studies in recent years have responded with a resounding, “No.”

Sex doesn’t sell.

1. Sexy ads don’t help improve brand recall.

This info comes from a 2007 study conducted for the University College London by Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham titled “Does Sex Sell?” According to the study, “There was no main effect of advertisement type on brand recall suggesting that the presence of sex in advertising does not assist memory for the advertisement.”

2. Audiences generally don’t like it when you use sex to sell a product.

According to a study of Super Bowl ads by University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire researchers Dr. Rama Yelkur and Dr. Chuck Tomkovick, racy ads are not appreciated on television—especially during a family event. Around 30 percent of Super Bowl ads in 2010 and 2011 included sexy images, and those with sex in them were rated much lower by viewers in places like the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. “We found that the more sexual content there is in a Super Bowl ad, the less people like it,” Yelkur said.

3. Okay, sometimes sex sells. But only when the product is actually used for sex.

“Sex sells, but only if you’re selling sex,” explains Jeffrey Richards, advertising professor at the University of Texas. Sexual commercials make sense if the product they’re advertising is, say, condoms. But if not? Consumers might be titillated, but they’re not going to remember your company name.

4. When sex does sell, it mostly only sells to men.

The researchers in “Does Sex Sell?” state that sex is only a useful advertising tool when selling to men: “Males recalled sexual advertisements better and females recalled non-sexual advertisements better.”


What’s the end result of all of this research? Men are more likely to remember the sexual content of Carl’s Jr. advertisements. The problem is, they probably won’t recall the actual company that the commercials are meant to promote. Burger King? Jack in the Box? All that matters is there was a semi-naked woman writhing around on the top of a car.

So, should Carl’s Jr. be taking such a risky advertising tactic? Peter Sealey, adjunct marketing professor at UC Berkeley, sums up the issue in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “This is the ultimate in bimbo advertising. If you are Hooters and you have buxom young waitresses, that’s fine. But Carl’s Jr. is more mainstream. They’ve got families going in there.”

Of course, thanks to the feedback machine that is the internet, consumers can easily complain about their issues with campaigns like Carl’s Jr.’s recent foray.

For example, the Parents Television Council wrote in a position statement, “The Paris Hilton/Carl’s Jr. commercial is nothing but a sleazy attempt on Carl’s Jr. part to make money selling burgers with pornography.” Jezebel wrote that “Carl’s Jr. is not exactly trying to market towards the ladies quite as much as they try to market on them.” New York magazine jokes: “It’s great to see someone rising in the ranks of the advertorial car-wash community.”

But there are more serious implications to this kind of sexist ad. The Paris Hilton commercials are borderline pornographic, yet are being aired every hour of the day. Dove addresses the issue perfectly with an advertisement called “Onslaught”:

In a marketing world where the senior creative positions are dominated by men, sex is usually viewed as an easy button. Yet, recent evidence suggests it may be more of a nuclear option.

What’s the deal with The Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.
Image by Matthew Bietz

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