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Consumer Responses to Sex in Advertising

Info: 2752 words (11 pages) Dissertation
Published: 4th Oct 2021

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Tagged: MediaConsumer DecisionsAdvertising


This study analyses the Chinese and British consumer’s responses to sexual content in advertisements, the advertised brand and consumer’s buying intentions towards the brand. Focus groups will be the principle research method used in this study, totally 32 Chinese and British participants (including 16 male 16 female) will attend the focus groups discussion. The purpose of this study is to examine the differences in the effect of sex appeal on advertising and brand evaluation between Chinese and British consumers. This investigation will also explore whether gender or product involvement will have any significant relationship with consumers’ attitudes regarding different sex appeal ads.

Rationale for the research

Advertising is an important global marketing strategy, it is important for managers to know whether they can use standard advertisements in each of the places where their brands are sold or whether they need to “localiseâ€? the advertisements my modify them to adapt the local cultural. The appearance and popularity of using sexual appeals in advertising has become a serious issue in the last 50 years. When using sex in international advertising, it is important to figure out whether sex appeal could be adopted cross national. Whether the effect of using sex in commercials is vary by country and cultural background. The main goal of the present study is to examine how the effect of sex contained advertising and consumer’s attitude toward these advertising and associated brand vary in different cultures by comparing Chinese and British consumer responses. There are many differences in social systems, cultural backgrounds and marketing and economic approaches between these two countriesChina is considered one of the largest developing countries in the world which has made it a target market for manufacturers from around the world in recent decade, whereas the United Kingdom is a highly developed Western country and is one of the main exporters to the Chinese market. The overall research objectives were defined as follows:

1. Fill the existing Gap in Chinese Research into Sex and Advertising

Compared to the British regulators of the 1990s and early 2000s (Independent Television Commission, Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Radio Authority) which carried out a number of studies into the consumer’s attitude and responses toward sexual content in advertisements, the study in this area in China has been rare. One of the purposes of this research is to gain a comprehensive understanding of Chinese consumer’s responses of sex appeal advertising; what are the responses of Chinese audiences when they are exposed to sex appeal advertising? Does sex in commercials sell for Chinese consumers? This study could help the managers who targeting Chinese market understand the attitude and responses of the specific type of sexual content in advertising. This study will also investigate the specific type of sexual appeal which might cause public offence. Recognizing the audiences’ attitude and acceptance of specific sexual content in advertising might increase the effectiveness of using sex appeal in television in Chinese market.

2. To understand the differences and similarities of consumer responses exist in both countries.

Through a comparison of British and Chinese consumer responses, the difference and similarities that exist in these two countries will be outlined. This work will contribute to the understanding of how sexual appeal work differently by countries and by genders.

Research Questions

RQ1. What are the key differences in responses toward sex appeal advertising, brand, and buying intention between Chinese and British Consumers?

RQ2. Whether gender is a significant variable in consumer responses to sex contained advertising?

RQ3. Whether product type is a significant variable in consumer responses to sex contained advertising?

Literature Review

The definition of sex in advertising

Since the 1800s, markets and advertisers have used sexy words and images to sell certain products. Along with the emergence and popularity of sexual advertisements, numerous studies have been carried out in this field. American social scientist Byrne (1982) deemed that sexual advertisements are a type of advertising with ascribed sexual meaning. Courtney and Whipple (1983:p.103) defined sex in advertising as “sexuality in the form of nudity, sexual imagery, innuendo, and double entendre… employed as an advertising tool for wide variety for products.�

As noted by Gould (1994), sex in advertising is typically visual (physically attractive models, depictions of sexual behavior with partners or alone) but can also include verbal innuendo and explicit copy. In 2001, Reichert et al. cited that in the context of advertising, sex has been general considered as a tool of persuasion to draw attention to certain products or brands. By its very nature, advertising is a form of persuasion communication. (Thorson, 1990), As such, sex could be used to as persuasive message to promote products and brands. In 2003, Reichert pointed out that sex in advertising can be thought of as a sexual appeal that involve many factors and forms such as nudity, physical attractiveness, sexual behavior and double entendre (Reichert, 2003). Whatever presentation of the sex, the important underlying conceptual commonality is that the information evokes sexual thoughts and feelings in the viewer (Reichert, 2003: 234).

Does sex sell?

The previous study indicated that with sexy illustrations advertising can effectively grab consumers’ attention and improve recall of the commercial message. Sexual appeals have been shown to be more attention.

Marketing researchers in this area investigated reactions of individuals to certain sexual appeals in advertising and explored reveal how sexual stimuli evoke reactions in individuals, and how these reactions may influence consuming behaviors. The goal of an advertisement is to promote products or services in an effective manner to attract the most people. If an advertisement cannot grab people’s attention, then it cannot affect their likelihood to buy that product. Thus, advertisers seek to make their commercials noticeable to their audiences. Consequently, marketing studies in this area often investigated whether marketing effectiveness of sexual advertising is improved by comparing audiences’ attentions between sexual and non-sexual advertising. In other words, these studies try to find whether sex appeals could increase the chance for ads for grabbing consumer’s attention then arousing their buying intention. The impact of sexual appeals on brand name recall and brand evaluation are also important themes in this field.

Berceid and Walster (1994) investigate the power of the physical attractiveness. They found attractive people are usually rated as more desirable, respectable and influential than less attractive people. This psychological evidence on the power of physical attractiveness supports the potential commercial value of using sexy models to promote products in advertising.

Alexander and Judd (1978) found that nudity and erotic content in ads can increase consumer attention to an advertisement but not necessarily enhance the brand recall and brand evaluation. In the study carried out by Marilyn et al. (1998), sexual appeals have been found to be more attention-getting, likeable, dynamic and more likely to increase a consumer’s interest in the topic than were nonsexual appeals.

The previous research shows that with sexy illustrations advertising can effectively grab consumers’ attention and improve recall of the commercial message. Sexual appeals have been shown to be more attention. However, sexual appeals that are attention grabbing can also fail to enhance brand recall and brand evaluation of advertising. Many studies found that brand recall from non-sex-containing advertising is higher than that from adverts that do contain sexual content (Steadman 1969; Alexander & Judd, 1978; Courtney & Whipple, 1983).

Individual Difference and Product Type

Previous study indicated that individual differences of consumers and product type promoted in ads should be considered when predict the effectiveness of using sexual appeal in commercials. The gender differences and different cultural background of consumers could impact their attitude toward sex contained advertising, moreover, the different product type promoted in sex appeal ads could influence consumer’s attitude as well. Male and female represent distinct differences when they were exposed to sexual content. Men showed more tolerance of sexual theme and content, meantime, their attitude toward sex appeal ads itself and associated brand were more positive than their women counterparts (Steadman, 1991). In 2004, Pope et al. considered gender differences as an independent variable of impact on consumers’ attitudes toward sex appeal advertisements. The finding indicated that compared to males, female consumer were more tended to responses positively to mild sexual appeal in adverts. The cultural background is another important capricious in consumer responses to sex appeal ads. People from different countries have distinct attitudes and opinions of sexual content contained in commercials. The research shows that in continental European countries, such as Denmark, Germany, Italy and France, consumers generally showed tolerance of nudity in advertisements (Frith & Mueller, 2003). In fact, according to a focus groups survey launched out by Tissier-Desbordes and Manceau (2002), French women typically regard female nudity and sexuality as aesthetic rather than sexual and erotic appeal. Wheras, Fetto (2001) carried out a public opinion survey in the U.S. focuses on people’s opinion toward sexual image in print advertising, majority people express that they do not like much sex in print ads and will boycott products which applied sexual appeal to promote. Meanwhile, compared to the U.S. consumer, British consumer showed an even stricter attitude toward female nudity in commercials (ITC, 2003). The previous research also indicated that influenced by traditional social and cultural values, people who live in countries in Asia and the Middle East tend to be more conservative than the US and Europe with respect to sexual content in adverts ( Frith & Mueller, 2003).

In addition, people were more likely to accept products and have positive attitude toward brand when they could see clear congruence between the products and the sexual content. Beauty and personal care products could easily be associated with sexual content and so increase the recall and acceptance among audiences (Gunter; 2002; Cheng, 2002). When consumers could not found clear relationship between the product type and sexual content they were more easily to be offended and harm the brand evaluation.

The Sexual Content Might Cause Public Offence in Britain and China

In Britain, IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) carried out a serious public opinion surveys in 1980s. This work was concerned, especially, with the public’s acceptance not just of sexual treatments in advertising, but with the advertising of products that were associated directly or indirectly with sexual matters (Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA, 1988). The finding shows people find advertisements that featured sexual matters or promoted products for personal hygiene deeply offensive, only 16% audiences admitted that they had been offended by advertisements. The greatest source of these offensive advertisements is related to nudity or sexual content. The majority of audience (70%) said they would not feel embarrassed by watching sanitary protection products on screen. In a later survey, more than 1,1000 UK television viewers were asked if they had ever been offended by television advertisements in this study. Most people expressed they did not think AIDS, contraceptives or condoms advertisements would cause offence. However, majority of British Viewers felt uncomfortable when faced by advertisements for homosexual advice services and Homosexual related products. In 1994, ITC research comprised focus groups and depth interviewer to investigate audiences’ attitude toward different degrees of nudity in advertising. The finding indicated that nudity was regarded as more acceptable when it was relevant to the product and appeared after 9 pm. The data of focus groups revealed that the suggestive and partially nude seems to could be accepted by audience in any time, semi nude and back nude could be accepted after 9pm, full-frontal nude and sexual intercourse imply or explicit scenes were unacceptable by audience (ITC 1998). In 2004, British researcher Andrea and Lloyd carried out a focus groups survey to examine the consumer attitudes towards female nudity in advertising. The data from focus groups that consumers are more accepting of female nudity in advertising when they see a clear congruence between the sexual content and the product, message or positioning.

There have been many fewer public opinion surveys on sex contained commercials in China. The only substantial studies we have located are that conducted by Cheng in Hong Kong in 2002. This survey used questionnaire which aimed at identifying what kind of advertisements consumers find offensive. The finding indicates that commercials promote contraceptive products were considered as more offensive than ads about female and male’s underwear. This study also pointed out that whether an audience will feel offended by advertising on the appeal than the product itself.

Relevance to my study

The review of previous research may contain clues about how specific aspects of advertising can exert effects on consumers. It provides useful inputs to methodology.

The review of previous studies in this field could help to understand that how consumer’s responses to sex appeal should be studied and analyzed. Three important elements, attitudes towards the ad, the brand and buying intention were adopted for testing the effectiveness of sex appeal in this study. The review of relative gender-role stereotyping studies offers the theoretical basis for examining the men and women’s different attitudes when they were exposed to sex contained advertisement. In addition, the previous cross-national comparison work, especially those compare sexy advertising in western and eastern cultural context, offers more detail what we already know about cross-national comparison into consumer’s responses to sex appeal advertising.


Given the nature of my project, qualitative research approach would be the best way to fully tackle the research questions. This paper will apply focus groups to examine people’s attitude and opinion toward sex in advertising. It also tries to explain the differences existed in the Chinese and British consumer towards sexual appeal advertising.


For focus groups, Chinese and British participants will attended in group session to discuss their opinion and attitude toward sexual appeal in advertising base on their individual experiences. In total, 32 participants will take part in this study and were divided into 4 groups: Chinese females, Chinese males, British males, and British females. All participants are university students in LSC.


Each of group would be asked to watch several advertisements contained different level of sexual content. Some advertisements only contain mild sexual content such as soft kissing, embracing, and suggestive nude), others contain high level sex appeals such as half nude, making out and sexual intercourse implied). The product types promoted in those sex contained ads are varying from beauty and personal care stuffs to electronic products. After that, participants would answer questions regard to their attitudes toward ads itself, brand and buying intention, and each participants will be required to discuss the question with others. Focus group will run for around 90 minutes. All discussion will be taped for data analyzing.

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