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The Reason Why Sex Sells: It Makes You Feel Dirty

Relevant topics Archive, Advertising

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Embodied cognition turns physical experiences (seeing a ‘dirty’ advertisement) into cognitive processes (i.e. actually feeling dirty).
  • Application:
    Feeling dirty makes consumers more likely to buy hygiene products. They are also willing to pay more for these products.
  • Sex in advertising campaigns can go both ways. On the one hand, it is an attention grabber. Being able to capture a consumer’s attention in this overly crowded world is potentially one of the best qualities an advertisement can have. Additionally, watching a sexual advertisement is a positive and rewarding experience.

    On the other hand, sex can disgust people. Imagine watching tv with your friends, colleagues or family. All of a sudden, a naked woman is promoting the newest fragrance by some brand. You go red and avert your eyes. Seeing such a sexual image makes you feel dirty. How and why does sex sell, when it can bring about such different feelings in consumers?

    Embodied Cognition: What You See Is How You Feel

    In the case of a positive encounter with a sexual advertisement, it can be explained easily: the consumer shifts their attention towards the advertisement, which is a positive and rewarding experience because of the depicted images.

    The other case, however, where the consumer feels embarrassed or dirty, can be explained by the embodiment effect or embodied cognition. This effect holds that physical experiences can and will overlap with cognitive processes. For example, real distance is felt as psychological distance (“out of sight, out of mind”). Or, as another example: When an object is portrayed in the advertisement as it is being used in real life (e.g., a smartphone that is being hold by someone), consumers have a stronger liking for the ad and the product.

    Now, in the case of sex and marketing, people feel physically dirty due to embodied cognition. How can marketeers use this in their advantage?

    Selling Hygiene Products

    You know what you want to do when you’re feeling dirty: You want to freshen up. Literally cleanse yourself of such a feeling. However, can this feeling be activated by thinking about sex? This is exactly what psychologists wanted to test. They found that, when having thought of (casual) sex, participants felt dirtier, increased the desire of taking a shower

    increased the liking of personal hygiene products (i.e., toothpaste and bar soap), and increased the willingness to pay for personal hygiene products (i.e., facial scrub). Thinking about a romantic setting (e.g., a walk at the beach at sunset), did not lead to the same effects.

    Their research even went a step further. Could this effect be moderated by one’s view on casual sex? It was hypothesized that individuals who hold a more negative standpoint on (casual) sex would feel dirty and, in turn, would be more likely to have greater liking for personal hygiene products. Individuals who hold a positive view, however, were hypothesized to not fall victim to this effect.

    They compared several groups of individuals: Those with a different political view (Republican [right-wing] vs. Democratic [left-wing]), religion (religious vs. non-religious), and different individual views on (casual) sex (positive vs. negative). The results again confirmed their hypotheses: there is a difference between these groups. Individuals who are Republican, religious, and/or hold a negative view on casual sex, did feel dirty after thinking about casual sex. Democratic, non-religious, and/or individuals with a positive view on casual sex, did not succumb to this effect.

    Other Marketing Examples

    This finding opens a door for both behavior scientists, as well as marketeers: How else can the embodiment effect influence the behavior of consumers? Based on the distance effect of embodied cognition, we know that a greater distance between an old price and a new, discounted, makes consumers more likely to perceive the discounted price as actually lower.

    Same goes for television advertisements in which a camera zooms out, leading the consumer to mentally distance themselves from the advertisement. A great effect for when the advertisement is ending – however, not so great when the brand was planning on showing their logo or product at that exact moment.

    Boundary Conditions

    One boundary condition of this new research on sex in advertising is the moderating effect of an individual’s view on casual sex. If this is positive, the consumer will not feel dirty and the effect will not hold. However, if the individual has a negative standpoint toward casual sex, they will feel dirty. Time to sell some hygiene products!

    Take-home points

    • Sex has the ability to make consumers feel dirty, leading them to be more likely to buy hygiene products.
    • This effect holds for people who have a negative attitude towards (casual) sex.
    • Embodied cognition can be used in multiple advertising settings.
  • The Reason Why Sex Sells: It Makes You Feel Dirty
  • Reference:

    Chan, E. Y. (2019). Dirty weekends and personal hygiene products: The embodiment of casual sex in marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 36(6), 587-596.

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    Further Reading

    • Love is…: Why We Love the Brands We Use Together

      Love is…: Why We Love the Brands We Use Together

      Every day, companies and brands vie for the attention of consumers. Through a consumer’s interaction with a brand’s product, this brand wants to become an inseparable part of the consumer’s life.


      But should brands focus on the individual consumer? What if a brand can become an inseparable part of the consumer’s relationships – for example, with a spouse? It appeared that brands can benefit from focusing on couples and their shared usage of brands’ products through becoming a significant part of their shared identity narrative.

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