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.

From the Lab: Congruence and Contrast

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly talk about the importance of making sure all aspects of your speech are congruent: your message vocal tone, facial expressions, and visuals should all support each other, rather than fighting against each other.

While ensuring this kind of congruence is essential, studies have shown that—when used well—contrast can also be effective. For example, in a classic study at Haverford College, congruent or contrasting music was played either before or during a film clip. As expected, when the background music during a clip was congruent, participants remembered the clip better than when it was contrasting. But when the music was played before the clip, contrasting music led to better recall. This is because the contrast between the film and preceding music made the film stand out more.

Therefore, while congruence is essential to consider when trying to make your presentation cohesive, it’s also important to consider how you can use the power of contrast to make your important points stand out in your presentation, and furthermore, how you can make your presentation stand out in people’s minds compared to everything else they’ve seen.