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Does Sex Sell, or Just Make Customers Impatient?

Researchers delve into the finer points of advertising: Do sexy ads have the right effect on consumers? Maybe not.

Everyone knows that sex sells. It's why marketers hire hot models and actors for commercials and ads. It's why conventions and product shows abound with "booth babes." The selling power of sex has fueled media buying, product design, packaging, deal making, and consumer self-image and identification with companies and products.

However, explaining how this works--why a biological urge that is often the source of angst and social awkwardness can get people to buy something--is tough. And if you don't know why something works, chances are it could backfire on you one day.

What the Research Says

Researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of Pennsylvania think they have part of an answer. According to a research paper called "Can Victoria's Secret change the future?," sexual cues might make consumers long for smaller, immediate rewards because larger ones can seem (subjectively) much further away.

What? The promise of sex can make someone impatient? Yes, of course you knew that, and previous research has shown that after rating physically attractive women, men subsequently focus on near-term financial opportunities, even though they're smaller than the amounts they could get if they delayed gratification. (No word on whether women can be equally swayed.)

What researchers B. Kyu Kim of USC and the Wharton School's Gal Zauberman posited was that the greater interest in an immediate financial reward might be an issue of consumers perceiving delays to be longer after sexual cues, and so they become more impatient than those who aren't exposed to the cues.

But How Do You Test for It?

A series of studies asked undergraduate men to rate photos from a Victoria's Secret online catalog, undergo a time perception study, and ultimately take tests in which they indicated how happy they would be to receive a prize today and what amount would be necessary for them to wait longer periods of time. According to the researchers, the results confirm that the sexual cues changed the time perception of the subjects, making the delayed reward seem even further away.

It seems reasonable that such an effect could make people see the diminished value of the delayed award, but before you pat yourself on the back about understanding this bit of human psychology, it's good to remember that many factors could be in play. For example, people were told to imagine getting a reward, so they likely didn't think they were actually going to get one, which could have affected the decision-making process. It could be that the amounts in question weren't large enough to be considered significant to the subjects. All the subjects were undergraduates, suggesting they were of an age that is inclined toward impulsiveness. There were no women in the study, so no way to know whether females are affected in the same way by sexual cues.

You also should ask what other mechanisms might be in play. I remember once talking to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller who said that an increasing number of studies show that unconscious evolutionary mating motivations influence monetary and purchasing decisions. It could be that exposure to sexual cues unconsciously make young men more anxious about attracting a mate and, therefore, want short-term financial gains to signal their desirability.

The Bottom Line

In addition, although the study is interesting, it doesn't address whether sexual clues can drive a person to purchase a product, only to become more impatient in wanting a reward. So, while sex may sell, we're still left not really knowing how nor why the mechanism works.

That may not be a bad thing. There is something slightly odious about trying to trick someone into making a purchase. Furthermore, when you begin to rely on tricks for marketing, it's a sign that perhaps you lack the insight into and relationship with your customers that should really drive a business.

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Last updated: Nov 21, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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