Katy Waldman: Study proves sex sells, but there are some rules

SlateDecember 8, 2013 

Being an advertiser is hard. On one hand, sex sells (and sells and sells). On the other, women sometimes take offense at slick ads, and then won’t buy your product, or let their boyfriends buy it. And before you know it there’s a Twitter campaign against your company and ... oh lord.

Yet a study in the journal Psychological Science shines a light on when it’s OK to objectify the female body in the name of Mammon. Researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs say women find erotically charged ads less distasteful when they promote very expensive items. We like our objectification classed up, thank you.

Vohs and her colleagues showed 87 male and female undergraduates 20-second commercials for women’s watches. Half the students saw ads featuring “majestic snowcapped mountains,” while the other half saw ads drenched in “explicit sexual imagery.” The prices of the watches varied randomly: either $1,250 (luxury) or $10 (bargain). When the researchers took participants’ emotional temperature after viewing the sexy clips, they found that women in the bargain group felt “more upset emotionally” than women in the luxury group. Women who saw sexual images paired with cheap watches also reported disliking the ads, while those who got mountains or sex-plus-extravagance reacted more neutrally.

In all conditions, the men were as the mountains: unfazed.

Researchers explained their findings by way of sexual economics, which treats the heterosexual dating pool as a marketplace and sex as a commodity. The story goes that since women sell sex to men in exchange for resources – including hard-to-quantify resources such as attention – they want the world to perceive their eroticized bodies as “rare and precious.” Ads that link female sexuality to exclusive, high-value goods help; ads that equate a woman’s erotic charms to a cheapo timepiece do not.

“Using sexual images to promote an inexpensive product fosters undesirable associations between sex and cheapness, commonness, or low value, which is antithetical to women’s preferences about how sex should be understood,” the authors write.

Women do not want to be bargain-bin watches. They want to be Ferraris and Christian Dior boots! Girl power! Just kidding: Women have or withhold sex for a variety of reasons, just like men, and objectification as an extremely pricey object is still objectification.

One note on these findings: The idea that women want sex to occur only in extraordinary circumstances, when the stars align and the price is right, seems pretty restrictive, and also runs counter to all those hook-up culture stories we’ve all been reading. Casual flings have their own downsides, but the best part is surely the realization that sex needn’t be “rare and precious,” only fun and safe.

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