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Published June 21, 2024

Study: Sexual ads for cheap goods irk women

Women’s distaste for sexual ads may depend on a product’s price.

Women typically don’t respond well to sexual ads for cheap products, but they object less when the price tag is higher.

According to a recent study, women’s distaste for sexual ads varies depending on the value of the product displayed: They’re upset and angry with sexual ads for cheap products but don’t mind sex tied to luxury items.

Women generally express spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images, but “we thought that the general idea that women reject sex-based ads was too simplistic,” Kathleen Vohs, University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor and co-author of the study, said in an email.

The study, published Nov. 22, showed 299 participants three 20-second ads. One of the ads, which had “explicit sexual imagery,” showed a watch priced between $10 and $1,250. The other ad showed the watch with a picturesque mountain landscape.

When cheap products were associated with sex, women reported feelings of anger, according to the study. Men, on the other hand, showed no preference either way.

University of British Columbia marketing professor and study co-author Darren Dahl said the intimate image used had a man and a woman “engaging” each other on a countertop with his buttocks exposed and her breasts visible.

“It wasn’t exploitive, per se, of one gender over the other, because you’d probably get very different outcomes [in the study],” he said.

Dahl said the advertisement would likely not be published in the U.S. but is standard practice in European countries.

Vohs said the varied results between genders can be explained with her sexual economics theory, which says men and women value sex differently.

According to the theory, women portray sex as infrequent, special and rare. They do so because they typically desire sex less than men do, and it is costlier for them biologically, physically and socially.

When cheap products are juxtaposed with sex, it can belittle those values.

“That’s the hypothesis,” Dahl said. “With the phenomena observed, it makes sense as an explanation at first blush.”

Department of Communication Studies Director of Graduate Studies Mary Vavrus, who studies media representations of gender, said extensive research bears out the idea that gender is fluid, and she dislikes studies that rely too heavily on biological explanations.

“That premise is troubling,” she said. “It assumes all women are going to respond the same way.”

Some female University students said they weren’t surprised by the results.

“It seems more appropriate for super expensive things,” said mechanical engineering freshman Rachel Spatz.

Neuroscience sophomore Kayla Pederson said she values sex highly and it shouldn’t be used for advertising, no matter the price of the merchandise.

“I understand why [women] are angry when things are cheaper,” she said, “because then they feel women are cheap and they can be used that way.”

Vavrus said advertisers compact meaningful messages into short ads, which has conditioned society to associate luxury products with pleasure.

“I don’t think it should be understood as just one-way,” she said. “I think that the more expensive desirable product is probably selling sex, too.”

The researchers suggested men weren’t bothered because they don’t connect sex with high value.

Dahl said research has found that men agree to sex much more quickly than women.

“Those types of things aren’t terribly surprising because we all have those stereotypes,” he said.

Dahl said they conducted the study because sex is a ubiquitous tactic used in advertising but is studied less frequently than tactics like humor and fear.

“People in North America are becoming more used to seeing sex in advertising,” he said. “Is it a good thing or a bad thing? That’s a separate question.”

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