The news: Sex doesn't sell, at least not cheap products to women, suggests a new study published in Psychological Science recently.
University of Minnesota researcher Kathleen Vohs and colleagues Jaideep Sengupta and Darren Dahl tested their hypothesis by having men and women watch a series of advertisements featuring watches priced at $10 or $1,250, either featuring a sexually explicit image or a thrilling mountain range. They were made to memorize a 10-digit code before watching the ads to prevent the test subjects from over-analyzing their own reactions.
Vohs wrote that "As predicted, women found sexual imagery distasteful when it was used to promote a cheap product, but this reaction to sexual imagery was mitigated if the product promoted was expensive. This pattern was not observed among men.
Furthermore, we predicted and found that sexual ads promoting cheap products heightened feelings of being upset and angry among women. These findings suggest that women’s reactions to sexual images can reveal deep-seated preferences about how sex should be used and understood."
"... Sexual economics theory offers a reason why: The use of sexual imagery is inimical to women’s vested interest in sex being portrayed as infrequent, special, and rare."
What's it mean? Slate's Katy Waldman says that women "like our objectification classed up, thank you."
Sarcasm aside, Waldman observes how convenient it is that while the women in the study seemed to superimpose themselves upon the sexualized silhouettes that were being used to hawk them merchandise - seeing "themselves as posing bodies, not as customers lured in by a beautiful model" - the men in the study weren't ruffled at all, perhaps because "they correctly percieved themselves as audience, not entertainment."
And the notion that women only like sex when it's asssociated with something expensive or deeply special doesn't hold much water compared to the media freakouts about the booming "hook-up culture," and seems a little precocious.
That said, the old adage that "sex sells" is something that advertisers might want to think a little bit more warier about - or at least rethink. According to the theory of sexual economics, sex is a valued commodity and women have a vested interest in appearing valuable. Watering it down to hustle cheap products is likely to backfire. But as Bustle observes, "Sexism can be attached to any price tag," and the illusion of class can be disrupted by a lurid ad campaign as well.