Here’s a slightly odd study from Belgium that nevertheless has some quite interesting and potentially important results. It concerns sexual priming effects in advertising and their subsequent impact on purchasing. Or, put another way, why attractive models supposedly help product sales.
Ever since Watson and Rayner conducted their famous “Little Albert” experiment in 1920 to demonstrate that it’s possible to condition emotional responses to stimuli in humans, marketers have been exploiting this technique and it is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the use of sexual imagery in advertising. Just as a dog can be made to salivate to the sound of a bell that has been repeatedly paired with food, so the same Pavlovian principles can make men (quite literally!) drool at the sight of a sports car that has been paired with an attractive girl. The conundrum in the consumer psychology literature, however, is that the effect doesn’t seem particularly significant when such techniques are used with women. Sure, they rate a brand/product higher when it’s paired with an image of an attractive man, but this doesn’t translate into a significant increase in actual buying in the same way as it does in men.
The study by Anouk Festjens and her colleagues sheds new light on this mystery, however. It seems that it is the nature of the stimulus that may be the problem. Sexual priming of products seems to work well with men because they are quite visual in terms of the stimuli amenable to conditioning, whereas women are more tactile. This doesn’t surprise me at all. My own research on female fashion buying over ten years ago demonstrated the importance of the sense of touch when making a purchase decision and this remains a significant problem when trying to convert female fashion buyers into online shoppers.
So what did this new study find? Well, it seems asking female consumers to touch stimuli that carry sexual connotations does have an impact on purchasing, very similar to the effect seen in male consumers when they look at the bikini-clad girl on the sports car. Specifically, the experiments demonstrated that asking female consumers to handle a pair of male boxer shorts significantly increased their desire for monetary rewards (e.g. finding a bargain), reduced their loss aversion and increased willingness to pay a higher price.
So there we are… sexual priming does have an economic effect on women as well as men, it’s just men buy with their eyes and women buy through the sense of touch. Now, I’m currently at a loss to think of a way of actually using these results in a practical way at the moment, but I’m sure there’s a canny marketer somewhere already working on it… can’t wait to see what they come up with!