Sex in Advertising

August 16th, 2006 by Bob Bly

A marketing manager for a management consulting firm (NOT a client of mine, by the way) e-mailed me a couple of photos of his firm’s consultants at a client engagement along with a simple question: which photo should they use in their new capabilities brochure?

The two photos were:

(a) An average looking, middle-aged male consultant giving a flip chart presentation to a roomful of male clients.

(b) A young, blond, and extremely attractive female consultant giving a flip chart presentation to a roomful of male clients.

Both people were real employees of the firm at an actual client engagement — the same client, in fact.

I thought I could answer quickly, but then I was stumped.

Does it really matter which consultant you use in the photo? Should it matter?

If it makes a difference, would business clients be more persuaded by (a) the middle aged (and presumably more experienced) male or (b) the younger and frankly sexier (but not overtly sexy; she was dressed in appropriate, conservative business attire) female?

How would you vote — and why?

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31 responses about “Sex in Advertising”

  1. Dianna Huff said:

    I don’t care which photo they use, just make sure it’s high quality!

  2. Dhaval M. said:

    From past experiences, it really depends on the industry you are serving. Personally, I would go with the female 9 times out of 10. We used to do direct mail postcards and using women (just faces – not a sexy shot) gave us far more leads than their male counterparts.

  3. Howard McEwen said:

    I’ve arranged for presentations for people in my office (mostly men) several times. I would use the woman. If I have a decent looking woman speaking, I get more of my guys to show. Also, if I get a good male speakers, I get more of my guys to show. The pretty woman can be boring and my guys will still show up more.

  4. Lisa Taylor Huff said:

    It would be nice to be able to say “it doesn’t matter”, but in reality it probably does. And I don’t think it even matters much if your audience is male or female in this instance, since in this case both photos are of people giving flip chart presentations to the same male audience. However if your product is something masculine (like steel girders or heavy construction equipment) then the image using the man would probably give the impression of credibility to an all-male audience; and if the product and/or the audience is more gender-neutral then the woman would probably present a better sales image.

    But is it selling sex, or is it just that customers of both genders are more likely to buy from someone they think is attractive than average-looking or unattractive? Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, tend to hire more young, attractive female sales reps than males (although when they hire males they also make sure they are young and attractive), even going to college campuses to recruit their new hires from the college cheerleading squad. Then they will try and send the female reps to call on male doctors. If first impressions are what sticks in the customer’s memory, and you want your first impression to be a positive one, you’ll probably pick the sales rep, or the advertising photo, that presents the most attractive image based on what you think your audience will most respond to.

  5. Lisa Taylor Huff said:

    One more thing… it will be interesting to see how your audience responds to the question, because my guess is that the female respondents will be more likely to say it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter, where the male respondents will be more likely to say they’d clearly pick the female image. Although only 4 of us have replied so far, that seems to be the way it’s stacking up.

  6. Lori Barbeau said:

    I am one of those women who, in the past, would have said (in my slightly insulted-feminist way) that it shouldn’t matter.

    However, Lisa has formulated an interesting question: are we hardwired to appreciate beauty and are we mislabeling it as sex? For instance, I’m drawn more to Michelangelo’s nude “David” than I am to an androgynous stick figure drawn on a cave wall, and it isn’t because of the nudity; it’s the beauty versus the plain.

    If it’s a hardwired truth that people (men or women) respond more to females in ads than to males in ads, then we should not let the sex-in-advertising monkey ride on our backs and beleaguer us with guilt or inflame us with righteous indignation when a female is used.

  7. Phil Dunn said:

    Bly, you are dang good. Great use of title. Provocative subject.. dang good all around.

    Now, I am forced to participate.

    It all depends upon audience, of course. Who are the “business clients” — that’s the million $ question.

    Most men will hang with, become compelled by, and generally be agitated positively by the female photo. Some studies even indicate that females will appreciate the female scenario, too. For different reasons (and I’ll leave it at that).

    Depends on the product, too. There has to be some break-away/disenchantment effect if the company is trying to sell something very serious with sexy sizzle. Some might buy beer and movies based on bikinis, but they won’t plop down $500K on an ERP system based on a saucy ad campaign.

  8. Bob Bly said:

    Phil: simplistic as the issue of sex in advertising seems on the surface, as you point out, it is not, and I have always struggled with it. In the late 1970s, on my first day in my first marketing communications job, a product manager I was to work with called me into his office at Westinghouse, where we made defense systems. “Forgot those fancy ads and brochures,” he told me, winking slyly, pulling out a notebook. “This is how you sell missile systems.” He opened the notebook, revealing 8 X 10 color glossies of women in bikinis straddling missiles. And he was dead serious.

  9. Craig Hysell said:

    An attractive blonde woman in conservative business attire is going to stand out in a room full of men in business suits more so than the male.
    Isn’t that what the brochure is going for? Some kind of visual stimulation that will entice the consumer to review the information on the firm? I feel like the woman would “pop” more in the picture simply because she is the only female in the room.

    It is a human trait to judge a “thing” by its look. We usually see something before we are able to feel, hear, discuss or smell it. An initial attraction leads us to desire more input. If there is no attraction we simply move on to the next circumstance. Like window shopping.
    Sex or “sexy” is a time tested way to draw initial attention to your product. I don’t see a picture of a fruit bowl or some other stagnant entity on the cover of Cosmo. I see an attractive woman. Every time.

    It seems beauty is as much a curse as it is a blessing. Especially if you’re beautiful and intelligent. It seems you would be judged by the former much more than the latter.

    What is beautiful has changed over time. But attraction is, and always will be, a base function.

  10. Bob Bly said:

    Craig: You astutely point out that the blond works for a reason other than sex and attractiveness: contrast. Readers of this blog may not be old enough to remember the first IBM PC ads with the Charlie Chaplin character. Everything — the PC, Chaplin, the furniture — was black, white, and gray, except for a single red rose somewhere in the scene. And it did catch your eye.

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Log onto the Microsoft Network home page today. There is a banner ad for a mortgage company in rich media. The visual is an attractive young woman gyrating in a bikini. What does that have to do with mortgages? She’s not even in front of her house!

  12. Scott Thorne said:

    For a stark example of which we prefer to look at, walk by the magazine racks in any store in the country and see which is more common on the cover, men or women. I’d estimate 50 to 75% of the magazines targeted towards men feature a woman on the cover, but look at the magazines targeted towards women. Nary a man to be seen.

  13. Sean Woodruff said:

    Take a picture of both presenting together. Both will be there and the prospects will have the choice of which they want to see.

  14. Phil Dunn said:

    I like the magazine rack example. Men are outward in their attention, perhaps (or certainly). And women are inward, seeking to examine themselves, their looks and ways. Mens’ mags (I’m thinking Maxim and such) put the sexy magnet on the front. [insert jokes about drooling pigs here]

  15. Bob Bly said:

    I once read somewhere that women are exhibitionists and men are voyeurs.

  16. Steve Markowski said:

    Dear Bob:

    I believe the testing on web salespages finds that a picture of an attractive young woman on the right side of the page wins.

    Too bad you can’t A-B test a brochure (or can you?)

    Steve Markowski

  17. Craig Hysell said:

    I wonder if the success of reality television has skewed the notion that women are exhibitionists and men are voyeurs? Are the people on the shows predominately women? Are the audiences watching the shows predominately men?

    I am sitting in a bookstore right now and have just perused the covers of several women’s fashion/lifestyle magazines. Of the 9 I am looking 8 are women’s magazines and 7 have a woman on the cover. All of them are heavily made up, wearing very nice clothes. 6 are smiling. Right underneath the masthead of Cosmo, in bold yellow print (the biggest and brightest on the cover) reads “101 SEX TRICKS- to try before you die.”

    The lone men’s magazine is GQ and has a picture of a male actor’s face on the cover.

    I’m not trying to figure out the difference in the sexes, but, apparently in either gender, beauty and sex sell. I am, however, wondering if I should buy my first issue of Cosmo ever and thereby proving the theory that sex sells- at least in thirtysomething males.

  18. Derrick Daye said:

    Bob,
    Some interesting points here. I think it’s clear we are all naturally drawn by beauty and sex. That alone will generate a higher response. The real question for me is what is the goal? If it’s strictly for attention more eyes will find the image of the woman. (The eyes of both men and women though for different reasons) If the goal is to further qualify the prospect and attract a more serious buyer (in this case) I would go with the image of the more experienced man. My reasoning? Have you ever noticed the buzz female models generate at trade show booths? Everyone seems to stop by. Ten days after the show ask the salesperson what the close ratio was. Not as high as it appeared on the floor. While awareness may have been slightly increased, many times the models presence overrides the featured product and the sales person is left with a dish of business cards that are hard to consider prospects. Do you want to flirt or do you want a relationship?

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