March 2, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The news has been inundated with talk fear that we are over sexualising our children. But are we as adults being oversexualised as well? It is true that we can’t turn our heads without seeing scantily clad models advertising everything from milkshakes to melon ballers. But does this really work? For suppliers to increase their sales figures is it simply a case of someone taking off their clothes and standing next to whatever inanimate object is being sold?

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research has revealed that the psychology of consumers is not as easily manipulated as we may all think. Using human beauty to sell a random object is actually only effective in certain situations.  Using an attractive endorser may even ‘decrease persuasion’.

There are three situations in which the use of such a technique can be seen to work:

  1. Using an attractive model as a cue seen before ‘attractive products’. When this occurs, the attractiveness of the model being used will impact the consumer’s evaluation of the product being advertised as well as products not being advertised.
  2. If the beautiful person is seen in the same visual frame of the product. In this instance then the model will specifically affect the consumer’s evaluation of the product, making them more likely to buy.
  3. If the attractiveness is used as an ‘argument’. Most commonly found in adverts for beauty related products. In this instance, the effectiveness of the ‘beauty’ technique relies heavily on the psychology of the consumer. If the consumer believes they are able to improve their image/self esteem or lifestyle in some way then their evaluation of the advertised product will be positive, having been persuaded by the image of Kate Moss sitting half naked on the stairs.

It is where consumers do not believe they are able to improve their self-image that this age-old advertising technique falls down. Perhaps the consumer believes that one should be satisfied with the hand they were dealt in life. Or perhaps they believe that they look so good that improvement is physically impossible. Whatever the underlying mind frame of these consumers, an image of Ryan Reynolds effortlessly seducing a young blonde woman will have no effect.

Using sex to sell a hairdryer or book or toaster is not quite as easy as sticking a raunchy photo onto the side of the box. Suppliers and advertisers alike need to understand the psychologies of their target audience and position their ‘attractive endorser’ in exactly the right space or time within the advert. Personally, I have never believed that buying a certain aftershave will make me look like Brad Pitt after one spray. However, maybe we are all being manipulated more than we think. To avoid being brainwashed I have one, very powerful piece of advice:

Keep telling yourself that your image has no room for improvement and the advertisers will not be able to break you.