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The Hard Sell

Sex sells, or so goes the adage, but does it sell to everyone, all the time? Not always, according to Tom Reichert, a professor at the University of Georgia who examined men's and women's reactions to sexually charged ads. In the research, to be published this fall, Reichert and his colleagues used a simple test called the Sexual Self-Schema to measure how comfortable people are with sex by asking how well a series of adjectives (such as "uninhibited," "spontaneous," and "arousable") describe them. Subjects with a more open outlook on sex are deemed "sex-positive," while those who experience sexual guilt or uncomfortable feelings rank as "sex-negative." Then they watched a series of sexy ads (including one for Victoria's Secret) and rated how much they liked them.

The results: Men responded well to sexual content regardless of their attitudes. But "women engage in more of a cognitive appraisal of how they should react," says Reichert. That means women are more influenced by their existing views on sex. Sex-positive women rate sexy ads favorably, while those with negative views of sex were put off by more-sensual approaches. The simplicity of the test may make it a useful tool for companies aiming to determine how far they should go in using sexy content in their advertising—and in planning media buys.

Source: "Assessing the Influence of Gender and Sexual Self-Schema on Affective Responses to Sexual Content in Advertising,"; Tom Reichert, Michael LaTour, and JooYoung Kim, Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, Fall 2007.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.