Like Sticking Post-it Notes On The Ocean: Why Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sex doesn’t sell anything other than itself.

In Martin Lindstrom‘s fascinating New York Times Bestseller, ‘Buy-ology‘, countless age-old advertising and marketing assumptions are obliterated.  Perhaps the most provocative (intentional word choice) assumption that he topples is one we’ve probably heard once a week for our entire lives: Sex sells.

Skeptical? I don’t doubt it. Let’s take a closer look before we dismiss the claim…

Lindstrom goes to the next level in ‘Buy-ology’ by going beyond observational marketing.  He draws from experiences with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning to measure activity in certain areas of the human brain in response to the stimulation of advertisements.  Taking a psychological/biological approach gives his findings the credibility that many marketing practices lack.

Think about Malcolm and the Middle vs. Sex and the City for a minute. One compelling experiment from Chapter 13 of the book had viewers of each show divided into two groups. One segment from each series was shown a grouping of sexually suggestive ads during the commercial breaks for products such as beer, shampoo, and perfume. Upon conclusion of each show, viewers were simply asked what they remembered. As Lindstrom regales, the group shown the sexually suggestive ads had no better recollection of which products they were for than those shown non-sexually suggestive ads. Furthermore, viewers of Sex and the City had even worse recollection than those who viewed Malcolm in the Middle. It turns out that the sexually suggestive nature of the show actually overshadowed the retention of the sexually suggestive nature of the commercials. Hence the conclusion: “sex does not sell anything other than itself.”

So, now you’re probably asking why sex and beauty are still used at such great lengths in marketing and advertising campaigns. Lindstrom’s fMRI brain scan experiments helped him find the answer.

In advertising and merchandising (take the pictures on underwear boxes, for example) attractive models actually activate the brain’s mirror neurons, making us view ourselves as one of them. From the shelf to the till (and probably all the way home until we look in the mirror) we view ourselves as the guys in the picture and adjust our confidence accordingly. Or, as Lindstrom points out, if a woman is buying underwear for a man, she’ll have no problem picturing him as fit and handsome as the guy she sees on the box.

Two important takeaways from just one chapter in Lindstrom’s eyeopening masterpiece:

1. Sex doesn’t sell anything other than itself.

2. Sex and beauty still work in advertising by activating mirror neurons.