Sexy advertising makes us feel dirty (sort of)

Highly sexualised imagery in advertising causes some of us to feel dirty – just not in the way we might think.

In fact, rather than making consumers feel sexy, such imagery can make them feel physically dirty instead. It can then motivate them to buy hygiene products such as toothpaste, soap and face wash.

This was the surprise finding of an international three-part study by Monash University called ‘Dirty weekends and personal hygiene products: The embodiment of casual sex in marketing’.

See lingerie, buy face wash

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Marketing at Monash Business School, Dr Eugene Chan (right), says the study has broader implications for marketers.

“If you’re an advertiser who is using sexualised images to sell your products, what we’ve found is that these images may actually lead people to buy different items from those originally intended,” he said.

“Our research shows that if a consumer sees a sexualised advertisement – say, for lingerie or perfume – it can actually make certain consumers head out to buy products like soap and face wash. Consumers’ physical experiences can really shape their judgement and choices.”

Visualising casual sex

In the first study, researchers asked participants to visualise either having casual sex or being in a committed relationship. Participants then rated their liking for products such as toothpaste, soap and face wash.

Another study involved participants seeing an image of a plain soap bar after visualising a casual sex encounter. They then expressed how much they wanted to have a walk, go shopping, or have a shower.

Finally, the researchers measured participants’ willingness to pay for a non-branded face wash compared with branded highlighters. The aim was to see whether participants were more drawn to brands or products after being influenced by casual-sex cues.

‘Brands were irrelevant’

From the three studies, Dr Chan concluded that many of us associate casual sex with “contamination, impurity or dirt”. And this is what motivates us to seek out products that help us get “physically clean”.

“We also highlighted that brands were irrelevant in the decision-making process,” Dr Chan added. “The behavioural desire by people to rid themselves of impurity was the prevailing factor.”

This study also extends Dr Chan’s research into disgust and how it drives behaviour.

“Disgust is an emotion that is so powerful,” he said. “Human behaviour is guided to avoid those feelings at all costs. Feeling physically unclean is a similar psychological experience.”

Read the full study.

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