Psychophysiological and Cognitive Responses to Sex in Advertising

Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University (Student), San Diego State University
Barbro E. Holgerson, San Diego State University
George E. Belch, San Diego State University
Jerry Koppman,
ABSTRACT - Cognitive and physiological measures were employed to determine viewers reactions to the use of sex in advertising. The results indicate that both nudity and suggestiveness will elicit physiological reactions, and that the cognitive and affective responses associated with these reactions will vary by sex of the receiver.
[ to cite ]:
Michael A. Belch, Barbro E. Holgerson, George E. Belch, and Jerry Koppman (1982) ,"Psychophysiological and Cognitive Responses to Sex in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 424-427.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 424-427


Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University

Barbro E. Holgerson (Student), San Diego State University

George E. Belch, San Diego State University

Jerry Koppman, San Diego State University


Cognitive and physiological measures were employed to determine viewers reactions to the use of sex in advertising. The results indicate that both nudity and suggestiveness will elicit physiological reactions, and that the cognitive and affective responses associated with these reactions will vary by sex of the receiver.


The apparent increase in the use of sex in advertising has motivated a number of researchers to attempt to examine the effects of employment of such a strategy. These studies have examined the effects on cognitive processing (Chestnut, LaChance and Lubitz, 1977), (Steadman, 1969), (Sciglimpaglia, Belch and Cain, 1979) as well as on affect (Morrison and Sherman, 1972), (Ray and Wilkie, 1970), (Wheatley and Oshikawa, 1970), (Wheatley, 1971), and on overall attitudes (Wise, King and Merenski, 1974), (Peterson and Kerin. 1977) among others.

While such studies have provided a good deal of insight into the psychological state of the viewer from a cognitive perspective, advertising researchers have also turned to psychophysiological technologies in an attempt to determine the effectiveness of their ads (Bose and Ghosh, 1976; Caffyn, 1964; Kohan, 1968; Hess, 1968). Though physiological measures of advertising effectiveness, have often been reported in the literature, most of these have been in respect to attention to (Krugman, 1971) or recall (Krugman, 1977), (Appel, Weinstein and Weinstein, 1979) of non-sexual stimuli. The purpose of this research is to examine viewers' physiological responses to sexual stimuli, in an attempt to further our understanding of the relative effectiveness of utilizing sex in advertising to elicit attention. (Attention has been shown to be correlated with physiological arousal in previous studies (Appel, et. al.)).


In establishing the methodology for determining physiological response to sex in advertising, two key issues emerge for consideration: (1) the operationalization of "sex"; and (2) the measures of psychophysiology to be employed. Each of these have precedents in the marketing literature.

Operationalizing Sex In Advertising

Previous studies examining the use of sex in advertising have defined sex according to two constructs: (1) nudity (c.f. Peterson and Kerin, 1977), (Alexander and Judd, 1978) and; (2) suggestiveness (c f. Morrison and Sherman, 1972), (Sciglimpaglia/et al, 1979). These studies have demonstrated that body nudity and suggestiveness will generate reactions from respondents, though there is some disagreement as to the valence and strength associated with each type. As such, the design employed herein will include both varieties of sexual stimuli with suggestiveness employing the Freudian definition of "a command or piece of information that triggers or arouses an idea in a persons mind" (1958).

Measures Of Psychophysiology

As noted, a number of studies have examined the physiological effects of advertising. (See Watson and Gatchel, 1979 for an excellent review.) In respect to sexual stimuli, however, most of the studies examining physiological effects have been conducted outside the advertising domain. The vast majority of these studies have employed three measures of involuntary response: (1) pupillary response; (2) electrode mal response, (GSR); and (3) heart rate. While the first two measures have been shown to be quite effective in measuring attention and affective magnitude, heart rate has been shown to be much less effective in respect to the latter. No reported studies in the advertising literature have examined the relationships between the three measures.

Research Design

Based on an analysis of the issues previously stated, both forms of sexual stimuli (suggestiveness and nudity) were employed in this study. Only one measure of psychophysiological response, electrodermal (GSR), was employed, however, with pupillary response and heart rate eliminated as a result of cost restrictions and previous research evidence of lack of significant findings respectively.

Thirty student volunteers were asked to participate in a study to evaluate print ads. A laboratory setting was established with projection of the ads (with product names and copy eliminated for control purposes) on a screen clearly visible to the respondent. Pretesting determined that it would be necessary to show a number of dummy ads to relax the respondent as well as to allow an interval between ads to allow the GSR measure to return to baseline. The respondents (15 male, 15 female) were seated alone in a secluded environment, wired for GSR, and shown 12 experimental ads selected by the scores in a pre-test. These ads consisted of three levels of nudity (partially nude, fully nude, fully clothed) for each sex and as male-female couples, and three variations of suggestiveness (weak and strong suggestive couples, female suggestion.) No male suggestive ad was included as none was perceived as such in the pre-test. In addition control ads of pastoral themes which included no people were employed. All ads were actual print ads with the exception of the male nude for which no such ad was available. Debriefing revealed no prior familiarity with the ads. A computer-generated randomization process was employed to present the experimental ads in various orders to eliminate order bias. Based on the results of the pre-test a control ad was presented between each experimental ad which allowed the GSR to return to baseline before the next experimental ad was shown. After viewing each ad once, the respondent was given a paper and pencil questionnaire and instructed to rate each ad as they were shown again a second time on three dimensions, appeal. interest. and offensiveness.


Three areas of concern were under investigation in this study; (1) psychophysiological response to sex in advertisements; (z) the relationship between the cognitive and physiological responses; and (3) differences between males and females responses on both measures. The results of each measure in each area of investigation follows.

Psychophysiological Response To Sex In Advertising

Examination of Table t indicates a very definite physiological reaction to both forms of sex in advertising. As can be noted, both males and females exhibit arousal to the various degrees of nudity and suggestiveness, with the most pronounced effects occurring at the display of the female nude slide. The fully clothed ads and the weak suggestion ads resulted in very little physiological arousal.



Examination of the response to the forms of se% employed demonstrates that suggestive ads evoke as strong a response as do those employing nudity, when the receiver is female. The reactions to the different degrees of nudity, however seem to be affected by the sex and the perceived attractiveness of the model (this will be examined more closely later in this report.)

The Relationship Between Cognitive and Physiological Reactions

As was noted in the preceding section both suggestion and nudity evoked physiological reactions. A limitation involved with this form of measurement, however, is that it can be used to measure intensity of the reaction, but not valence. To determine the cognitive reactions associated with these responses, it was necessary to ask viewers to evaluate the ads on three measures - interest, offensiveness, and appeal. Pearson Product - moment correlations between these measures and the physiological measure were used to determine the relationships, with t-tests used for comparisons between the male-female groups. Examination of the cognitive evaluations of the ads (Table 2) and of the evaluations of the cognitive and physiological measures (Table 3) is necessary to attempt to ascertain the causes of the reactions.



As evidenced in Table 2, those ads eliciting a strong physiological reaction also tended to exhibit stronger cognitive reactions. For example, ad 1 (Female nude) tended to be rated as very interesting and appealing to both males and females (though more so to males) as was the case with the female semi-nude ad. The male and female fully clothed ads on the other hand elicited only Slight reactions on GSR and the cognitive measure.

The Suggestive ads likewise tended to elicit stronger cognitive reactions, particularly with females, who in general tended to find the ads more offensive, less appealing and less interesting as the degree of suggestiveness increased.



Perusal of Table 3 indicates very weak correlations between the cognitive and physiological measures. Where strong correlations do tend to exist, the range of cognitive reaction tends to be much narrower, a tendency to indicate a lack Of strong feelings toward the ads overall. As one should expect, these findings generally were associated with the fully clothed ads and the weak suggestive ad. Scattered evidence of consistencies among responses was also shown for the nude and semi-nude couple ads, where overall men found them to be interesting and appealing but not verY offensive.

Differences Between Male And Female Responses

Earlier research has demonstrated differences in responses to sex in advertising as a result of the sex of the receiver. While Table 1 and 2 reveal few statistically significant differences between males and females, on either cognitive or GSR measures, close examination does demonstrate a pattern of response variations. Overall women tend to show stronger physiological reactions than do men for those ads containing either nude or semi-nude females and for those ads perceived as strongly suggestive. Men demonstrated the most physiological reaction to female nudes and males either nude or partially nude respectively, with much less reaction to suggestion.

Examination of cognitive measures associated with these reactions shows that women view ads with female models at both levels of nudity and suggestiveness as less interesting, less appealing, and more offensive than do males. Likewise males tend to find the use of male models at various levels of nudity as less interesting and appealing and more offensive. In respect to the use of couples at various stages of nudity, once again males found such ads to be more interesting and appealing and less offensive than their female counterparts (though few significant differences were shown).


The results of the study presented here warrant a number of conclusions:

- the use of both nudity and suggestiveness in advertisements elicit strong physiological and cognitive reactions.

- the sex of the receiver will have an effect on the reactions to the use of sex in advertising, with women reacting much more to suggestive ads than do men.

- both opposite sex and same sex nude ads elicit strong physiological reactions, with appealing and offensive cognitive reactions respectively.

While the results of this study in general are consistent with those previously conducted, they also extend into the physiological domain, lending even stronger support to the fact that the use of sex in advertising is likely to elicit psychophysiological reactions from the viewer. The implications for advertisers are apparent - to elicit more attention and reaction to your ads employ the use of sex. At the same time one must be cautious, however, as reactions are not always favorable. Rather the arousal may be a result of offensiveness and/or dislike of the advertisement. Thus, while more reactions are elicited, which may be desirable, the fact that these reactions may read to negative evaluations may carry over to the product itself - an obviously unfavorable reaction. based on these findings and those reported in previous studies it would appear as though those ads targeted at a specific sex should not employ nudes of the same sex. Further, it would appear that ads employing suggestiveness would not be useful for attracting favorable reactions among females. Opposite sexed models might, however, be effectively employed if done so with the product and theme of the ad consistent with the use of the model.

Finally, it must be recognized that this research has its limitations. While a sample size of 30 is quite large for research in the psychophysiological domain, it is barely sufficient for use in cognitive and affective assessments. Thus the lack of correlations between the cognitive and physiological measures may very well be a result of the small sample. Opposite cognitive reactions to an ad could still elicit strong physiological responses yet essentially "wash out" any consistencies between the measures. The same research employing a much larger sample would be quite useful and worthy of future research considerations.


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