From the Lab: Sex (Sometimes) Sells (But Not Really)

In a recent meta-analysis of studies, reported by Psychology Today, researchers investigated whether sex sells. Here are some of the essential findings:

  • In general, sex led to greater recall for ads (d = .38).
  • The effect was greater for congruent products (e.g., using sex to sell lingerie) (d = .45).
  • But it was entirely reversed for incongruent products (e.g., using sex to sell laptops) (d = -.46).
  • However, even in congruent cases, just the ads were remembered. The brands themselves were no more likely to be remembered (d = .09).
  • In general, attitudes towards the sexual ads were mostly neutral (d = -.07).
  • But this was only true when men and women were averaged together. While men had moderately positive views of sexual ads (d =.27), women had stronger negative views of them (d = -.38).
  • In terms of actually selling the product, sexual advertising had no effect (d = .01).
  • But when the sexual appeal and product were incongruent, sex actually led to decreased sales (d = -.24).

While in a formal speaking context, these specific findings are moot—using sex to sell is usually inappropriate in such contexts—there are still several important lessons we can take from this research.

First, it underscores the importance of congruence. In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s important to make sure all aspects of your speech go together, whether it’s matching your facial expressions and tone of voice to your content, making sure your visual aids all look cohesive, or making sure your persuasive appeals are all congruent. This research intensifies all of these points by showing that incongruence can not only be ineffective, it can actually have a significant negative effect, in this case leading to lower recall and purchase intentions.

Second, beware “seductive details.” In The Science of Speaking, I review research showing that when interesting but irrelevant details are added in order to spice something up, these details can actually draw attention away from the main message, resulting in the opposite of the intended effect—in that case, learning, and in this case, sales.

Finally, it’s always important to consider your audience. Just as in this case, there were totally different effects for men and women, your appeals may have totally different effects on different audiences, and a strategy that works well for one may totally flop with another. Rather than designing general appeals that you think will work for everyone, you want them to be tailored to your audience as much as possible.

On the Screen: Do Your Research

Last night, my wife and I finally saw Hidden Figures. There were many great things about the movie, but I want to talk about one particular scene here today.

It’s the scene where Mary Jackson is petitioning to take classes at the segregated high school, which will enable her to apply to be an engineer. She making her case—her pitch—to the judge.

“Your Honor, you of all people should understand the importance of being first,” she says, explaining how he was the first in his family to serve in the Armed Forces and attend university, and the first State Judge to be re-commissioned by three consecutive governors.

“You’ve done some research,” he replies.

Then she explains how he has a rare opportunity to make a decision that will matter in a hundred years, another opportunity to be “the first.”

This is not only a great example of a Halo appeal specifically tailored to your audience—it’s also a great demonstration of how important it is to know your audience, to learn about them by doing some research.

It’s not that all judges want to be the first—in general, most judges actually want to avoid making waves. Their primary job is to apply the existing law to new cases, not to make decisions that overturn the existing law. But with a little research, Jackson was able to identify a personalized appeal that would work for this particular judge by referencing his history of being first.

You, too, can improve your pitches by doing some research about your audience in order to identify appeals you can tailor specifically to them. The more you know about the people in your audience, the more effectively you will be able to persuade them.

Off the Shelf: The Benefit of the Benefit

In a yesterday’s post, I cited research that experiences give us more satisfaction than things, so it’s more effective as a communicator to sell experiences than products.

But what if what you’re trying to sell is a product? Is your pitch simply doomed to be less effective?

Fortunately, no. In fact, in the example I cited, Sam Mendes’ FaceTime commercial, the thing being sold actually was a product, the iPhone 4. The ad simply focused on the experiences that this product enabled.

You can (and should) use the same approach for every product you sell. As Chip and Dan Heath note in Made to Stick, you should focus on “the benefit of the benefit.” The first benefit in that phrase is an experience, while the second is the product that enables it. For example, the Heaths write, “people don’t buy quarter inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.” (This example is a concrete, emotional adaptation of classic piece of marketing advice from Theodore Levitt.)

As the Heaths note, citing copywriter John Caples, “companies often emphasize features when they should be emphasizing benefits.” In the words of Caples, “The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).”

This focus on your own product is understandable—you’ve spent a lot of time perfecting “the world’s best seed.” But as we’ve seen many times before, effective communication involves shifting the spotlight off of yourself and onto your audience, crafting your pitch to appeal to their interests, even if those interests happen to be different from yours.