Sex Really Does Sell: Or Does It?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Sex Really Does Sell: Or Does It?

It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom so long as you don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses. (Mrs Patrick Campbell, The Duchess of Jermyn Street, 1964)

Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right. (Woody Allen, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, 1972)

Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it. (Stephen Leacock)

Advertisements attempt to be interesting, attention grabbing and memorable. They serve the important commercial purpose of increasing product awareness. This increased product awareness is, in turn, geared to the ultimate goal of increasing the likelihood that viewers will purchase the goods or service advertised. That is how advertising is supposed to work.

One question is: does sex sell? That is, if advertisements contain sexual content will the product become more memorable and the viewer more inclined to buy it? Sex in advertising is commonly utilized to this end with great success, as exemplified by the case of Calvin Klein’s 1995 sexual advertising campaign that doubled sales of their jeans. Given that advertising revenue provides the main source of income for the majority of television stations internationally, understanding whether ’sex really sells’ is arguably not only an area of public and scientific interest, but has also a huge commercial significance for broadcasters. Indeed, advertisers demonstrate this importance because it can cost many millions ($/£) to air a single 30-second advertisement in the middle of a very popular programme.

Memory for sexually themed advertisements

Despite the frequent use of sexual themes (pictures, sounds, images) in advertisements, there are contradictory findings regarding their effectiveness. Advertisement memory is a critical factor in commercial effectiveness: a growing body of research has directly examined measures of recall for advertisement content. This has been done predominantly through the design of matching sexual and non-sexual advertisements on extraneous factors unrelated to their sexual content, such as the brand, the product type, the duration of the advertisement and the target audience. That is, researchers have to find ads for similar products (beer, cars, shampoo) where one has sexual imagery and the other does not. The majority of these studies have demonstrated that sexual advertisements are more memorable than non-sexual advertisements. There is also strong physiological evidence to suggest that sexual advertisements result in a state of not only heightened arousal, but also attention, when measured via galvanic skin responses. Furthermore, it has been suggested that a sexually charged advertisement can lead to greater behavioural intentions to purchase the product.

But there are some contradictory findings. One possibly confounding factor is the precise nature of the depiction of sexual activity and whether it is of the romantic or non-romantic nature and setting. This is difficult to control in both advertisements and programmes and could in part explain equivocal findings.


A further area of concern for broadcasters is whether to place advertisements with a sexual content within sexual or non-sexual programmes. One early study found that when people saw programmes with sexual, violent or neutral content, they had poorer memory for the advertisements embedded within these programmes. This effect was also found to have an impact on the consumer’s behavioural intentions to purchase the advertised products through coupons in a subsequent follow-up study. It was suggested that sexual programmes might prompt viewers to think about sex, which disrupts the encoding of adverts, or that processing sexual material requires greater cognitive resources than non-sexual material, leaving less cognitive capacity for processing other stimuli such as advertisements. Certainly, there is considerable empirical evidence suggesting that individuals pay more attention to sexual media than non-sexual media.

However, two studies showed that when these other aspects of the programmes are held constant, sex and violence does not affect the memory for the embedded advertisements — but other aspects of the programme’s content (e.g., humorous content) do influence advertisement memory. But, on balance, the evidence would suggest that sexual programme content hinders advertisement recall.


Another factor thought to influence brand recall is the extent to which the viewer is ’involved’ with the programme, though this has been a debated construct in advertising literature. It has been argued that individuals experiencing low levels of programme involvement perceived advertisements embedded within a congruent context as clearer and more likable, whereas highly involved individuals perceived advertisements embedded in a contrasting context as having a higher likeability and clarity. Researchers argued that for individuals with a low level of involvement, a congruent programme context could act as a peripheral cue, activating knowledge structures and facilitating message elaboration (priming effect). In contrast, individuals with high involvement are more likely to process the information centrally because of the contrast between the advertisement and the programme (a contrast effect).

Others have argued for a curvilinear relationship between the level of involvement with a programme and programme-congruency effects. When a programme induces high levels of involvement, congruity effects are eliminated due to depleted cognitive resources. When a programme induces low levels of involvement, motivational priming is absent. Between these two extremes (i.e., a moderate level of involvement with a programme) individuals are expected to be subject to congruity effects. Due to the highly involving nature of sexual programmes it is possible there would be no congruity effects for advertisements embedded within sexual programmes, because of the high level of involvement they would engender.


Bushman, B. J. (2005). Violence and sex in television programs do not sell products in advertisements. Psychological Science, 16, 702—08.

Leka, J., McClelland, A., & Furnham, A. (2013). Memory for sexual and non-sexual television commercials as a function of viewing context and viewer gender. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 584—5.

Lull, R., & Bushman, B. (2015). Does sex and violence sell? Psychological Bulletin, 141, 1022—48.

Parker, E., & Furnham, A. (2007). Does sex sell? The effect of sexual programme content on the recall of sexual and non‐sexual advertisements. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 1217—28.