Study shows sex sells – sometimes

Dr Sukanlaya Sawang from Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) School of Management, who specialises in cross-cultural research, conducted an experiment in the United States on 78 people from three cultural backgrounds.

Dr Sawang, who collaborated with researchers from the University of Central Oklahoma, asked the study participants to sort 36 print advertisements for everything from toothpaste to cars into the ones they liked most and the ones they least liked.

“We’ve all heard that sex sells but does it sell to everyone?” Dr Sawang said.

Her study found sexually explicit advertising was preferred by Americans and Asian American males more than by Asian consumers.

The cultural groups surveyed were male and female Caucasian Americans, American-born Asians, and Asian-born people visiting the US. The advertisements were from American print media and were divided into three groups: no sexual content; some sexual content; and sexual content with nudity.

“The five most popular ads chosen by American males had sexual content with female models. The common elements in their most popular choices were models with low waist-to-hip ratio, wide bust and makeup,” Dr Sawang said.

“The Asian men and women, however, preferred ads with women with Asian-like features.

“Conversely, the American women were more likely to favour the use of sexual content with male models than the Asian women.

“They responded more positively to male models with V-shaped bodies, high cheekbones, strong jaws and chins and prominent noses.”

Dr Sawang said the findings on the preferences of Asian women indicated ads with sexual content would not “work” for women in Asia.

“The Asian women’s most-liked ads were the ones that depicted caring and pleasant emotions; their least-liked ads were those that had nudity and sexual content,” she said.

“One particular ad, one in a famous series for milk featuring celebrities with a milk stain on their top lips, drew particular dislike from the Asian women viewers. We asked them why and they said they did not like the milk on the model’s lip or her posture. One participant said: ‘It seems semen-like, isn’t it?’.

She said the use of ambiguity in advertisements could actually generate negative evaluations by consumers.

“Another stand-out least liked ad among the Asian women was one depicting a woman in soccer clothing balancing a ball on her foot,” Dr Sawang said.

“This may be due to the effect of female ideology in Asian cultures such as China, Japan and Thailand in which parents teach daughters about strict standards of femininity.”

Dr Sawang said that a difference in personal and cultural preferences was also found.

“Asian men reported that advertising with sexual content was not acceptable in their culture but that personally they didn’t find it unacceptable.

“This study tells us that advertisers should take care to test their advertisements through a wide range people in the target society before going to the expense of publishing them.”

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, +617 3138 1841 or [email protected]