Defining Sexually Oriented Appeals in Advertising: a Grounded Theory Investigation

Tom Reichert, University of North Texas
Artemio Ramirez, University of MinnesotaBDuluth
ABSTRACT - The sexually oriented appeal is a prevalent, yet poorly defined concept in the study of advertising and message effects. The goal of this exploratory research was to contribute to a more precise understanding of this concept by adopting a grounded theory approach. Respondents were asked to identify an ad they considered Asexy,@ and to describe characteristics of the ad that made them perceive it as such. The analysis revealed four overarching characteristics of sexy ads: (1) physical features of models (clothing, physique, and general attractiveness), (2) behavior / movement, (3) intimacy between models, and (4) contextual features (e.g., camera effects). References to physical features was the most frequently mentioned category by both women and men, while women were more likely to mention contextual features and intimacy. Other differences emerged as well. On the basis of these findings a receiver-based definition of sexually oriented appeals is offered, as are suggestions for future research.
[ to cite ]:
Tom Reichert and Artemio Ramirez (2000) ,"Defining Sexually Oriented Appeals in Advertising: a Grounded Theory Investigation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 267-273.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 267-273


Tom Reichert, University of North Texas

Artemio Ramirez, University of MinnesotaBDuluth

[The authors would like to thank Susan Heckler, Alice Kendrick, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.]


The sexually oriented appeal is a prevalent, yet poorly defined concept in the study of advertising and message effects. The goal of this exploratory research was to contribute to a more precise understanding of this concept by adopting a grounded theory approach. Respondents were asked to identify an ad they considered "sexy," and to describe characteristics of the ad that made them perceive it as such. The analysis revealed four overarching characteristics of sexy ads: (1) physical features of models (clothing, physique, and general attractiveness), (2) behavior / movement, (3) intimacy between models, and (4) contextual features (e.g., camera effects). References to physical features was the most frequently mentioned category by both women and men, while women were more likely to mention contextual features and intimacy. Other differences emerged as well. On the basis of these findings a receiver-based definition of sexually oriented appeals is offered, as are suggestions for future research.


Sexual appeals are fairly common in maistream consumer advertising (Reichert et al. 1999; Soley and Reid 1988). Despite their prevalence and research into their effects, there has been little conceptual discussion regarding what actually constitutes a sexually oriented appeal. Most conclusions advanced in this area are based on operationalizations of female nudity. As researchers, we should be concerned not just with nudity, but with the full range of appeals in which overt sexual imagery is used to evoke sexual responses. From a research perspective, ambiguously defined concepts are problematic in that they thwart attempts aimed at comparing findings across studies (Teas and Palan 1997). Furthermore, definitional ambiguity can result in a limitation of the claims that can be made regarding the potential effects of sexually oriented appeals. For these reasons, it is important to look beyond certain researcher-supplied definitions to obtain a more precise understanding of this concept.

To address this issue, a grounded theory investigation was employed because it is particularly suited to exploring what consumers perceive as sexy in advertising (see Hirschman and Thompson 1997; Strauss and Corbin 1990). This is important because work in psychology and sexology suggests that information must be labeled as sexual before it can evoke a sexual response (Fisher 1986). This report begins with a review of previous definitions of sexually oriented appeals in advertising, followed by an account of the method of our investigation, and a discussion of relevant findings.


According to O’Keefe (1990), there are two general ways to define messages: in terms of intrinsic message features (e.g., comparative or noncomparative advertising), or in terms of recipient responses (e.g., humor and fear appeals). O’Keefe argues that neither attempt to define message variables is "correct," rather, one can define messages however one likes. What is important is that the definition is clear. In the advertising literature, sexual appeals have typically been defined according to overt message features (e.g., nudity, decorative models) rather than recipient responses. Possibly as a result, more emphasis has been placed on examining the effects of operationalizations than on discussions devoted to the conceptualization of sexual appeals. For the purposes of review, most definitions can be organized within two general categories: nudity and suggestiveness.


The most common application of research in this area has explored the effects of female nudity on advertising processing and outcomes (Belch et al. 1981; Judd and Alexander 1983; LaTour 1990; LaTour and Henthorne 1993; Sciglimpaglia et al. 1978; Severn et al. 1990; Simpson et al. 1996; Steadman 1969; Weller et al. 1979). In this case, nudity is typically referred to as the amount and style of clothing worn by models in ads, and nudity is operationalized as models in progressive stages of undress (e.g., suggestive, partially-revealing, or nude). Effects studies typically compare ads with models clothed at one of the three levels of nudity to ads with either demurely dressed models or no model at all.

As mentioned, sex is usually operationalized as nudity with little discussion regarding the conceptualization of sex or of sexually oriented appeals. An implied assumption in these studies is that clothing, or lack thereof, is a primary determinant of sexual response. A related assumption is that there is a linear relationship between the levels of undress and sexual arousal. It could be argued, however, that nudity is neither necessary nor sufficient for a stimulus to be perceived as sexual. How, for instance, does one take into account models that are unclothed but clearly not sexual or fully-clothed models that are sexually inviting? Morrison and Sherman (1972) reported that a large percentage of their sample was not aware of nudity when exposed to it, nd of those that were aware of it, a large portion reported not being sexually aroused by it. Nudity, as an operationalization of sex, may or may not evoke a sexual response in receivers.

Revealing displays of the body are clearly an important component of sexual arousal and sexual attraction, but limiting this domain to nudity neglects other, potentially more important, determinants of sexual attraction such as behavior and physical interaction. Consequently, most of what is known about the effects produced in this research is limited to the effects of nudity. Although to a lesser degree, researchers have assessed other types of sexual appeals.


Ads loosely defined as "suggestive" are also generally considered examples of sexually oriented appeals in advertising. This category is less concrete compared to nudity, and subsequently, includes a menagerie of stimuli. This class of sexual stimuli has also been referred to as "implicit" (Bello et al. 1993), primarily because references to sex are implied or subtle (e.g., sexual innuendo, double entendre). Suggestiveness has also been defined in the literature as a message "having or possessing sexual stimuli that triggers or arouses ideas about sex in a person’s mind" (Reid, Salmon, and Soley 1984, p. 215). However, this class of stimuli is typically characterized by overt content characteristics within the ad.

Suggestiveness has been operationalized several ways in the literature. Belch et al. (1981) and Sciglimpaglia et al. (1978) operationalized suggestiveness as heterosexual couples in various degrees of intimacy and clothing. In other studies, judges or subjects have determined the erotic level of treatments ads using overall impression rules (see Weller et al. 1979). Richmond and Hartman (1982) labeled suggestive stimuli as "fantasy" and measured it on a 6-point scale item anchored by "romantic/ordinary." They defined it as "an appeal that links the product to imaginative wish fulfillment, implicitly promising fantasy gratification of sexual motives" (Tinkham and Reid 1988, p. 118).

One issue with the suggestive categorization of sexually oriented appeals is its breadth. A wide range of sexual stimuli have generally been considered suggestive (i.e., camera angles, editing, seductive language, couples, double entendre, and sexual behaviors). It is certainly probable that each of these executional cues may impact processing and outcome variables in various ways, subsequently limiting generalization. Second, studies in this area may have confounded suggestiveness with the style or amount of clothing worn by the model(s) in the ad. Hence, this catch all category of sex in advertising may represent stimuli which are related but represent divergent effects, and may often be confounded with nudity.

To summarize past research, there is a wide array of content-based definitions that have been used to define sexually oriented appeals in advertising. Although most of the literature has examined the effects of nudity, there are clearly several other types of sexual stimuli that have also been considered. In addition, previous studies have placed more emphasis on the operationalization of sexually oriented appeals rather than conceptual meaning. Teas and Palan (1997) described a similar dilemma in their review of consumer expectations research, "The abundance of consumer expectations definitions and theories . . . resulted in a quagmire of concepts that often produce confusion when used and interfere with the progress of theoretical development" (p. 53). It could be argued that a similar situation exists in the sexually oriented appeal literature resulting in unnecessary obstacles for understanding and attempts to make generalizations about the effects of sexually oriented appeals in advertising.


Inan effort to address the concerns identified above, the present study sought to contribute to a more precise understanding of receivers’ meanings for sexually oriented appeals. Because researcher imposed conceptions may or may not be valid, our first question sought to discover what receivers find sexual in advertising (RQ1).

The method employed in this study was a grounded theory investigation of participant responses to what they consider sexual in advertising. This method is uniquely positioned to inform this literature because of the nature of the phenomenon. According to the Sexual Behavior Sequence Model (SBS), erotic stimuli must be perceived as sexual before evoking a sexual response (Fisher 1986). The SBS is a theory developed in social psychology to explain and predict the sequence and variety of sexual responses to sexual stimuli (Byrne 1977, 1982). A central tenet of this theory as it pertains to the present research is that a stimulus must be recognized and interpreted as sexual to evoke a sexual response. Once a stimulus is interpreted as sexual, a sexual response is evoked within the viewer in the form of physiological, affective, and/or cognitive responses. A receiver-based definitional approach is not without precedence in advertising effects research as humor and fear appeals have been defined as messages that are perceived as humorous or threatening (Keller and Block 1996; Zinkhan and Gelb 1986). In addition, Gould (1992) advanced a consumer model of scripting based on lovemaps and the SBS.

Second, this study also sought to determine if and to what extent gender differences influenced participant meanings (RQ2). Gender is an important determinant of evaluations and interpretations of ads with sexual content both within and between genders (LaTour and Henthorne 1993; Morrison and Sherman 1972; Stern and Holbrook 1994). Although the pattern of findings suggest that males and females differ in their reactions to some types of sexual stimuli and are similar in other respects, it is not entirely clear how gender operates in this context. From an advertising perspective, it is important to add insight to these relationships because of a lack of gender-focused studies in consumer behavior (Costa 1994).



Participants were 144 business and communication undergraduate students at a large southwestern university. There were more males (58%) than females in the sample. Ages ranged from 18-44 years of age (M=23.1 years, SD=4.32), and the racial distribution was primarily white (72%) and Hispanic (19%). Participation in this study was voluntary.


Procedure and Coding

Data were collected with an in-class questionnaire which took participants approximately 10 minutes to complete. Respondents were told that this was an advertising study and that researchers were interested in how people define certain aspects of advertising. Respondents were instructed to think of an ad that they thought was "sexy," and to describe the ad. Meanings for "sexy" were gathered with the following open-ended question: "What about the ad makes you describe it as sexy?" In addition, subjects were also asked the following question, "If you had a particular ad or ads in mind when answering the above question, what were they?"

Because it was thought that meanings for "sexy" (what respondents perceived as sexual) might differ in qualitative and quantitative ways from previous research, we adopted a grounded theory perspective and developed a new coding scheme. A grounded theory approach was used because, as Hirschman and Thompson (1997) point out, it is "particularly appropriate when the purpose of the research is to discover consumer-based constructs and theories" (p. 46). The coding scheme as developed by a coder who was blind to the specific research questions of this study. A review of the responses to the questionnaires generated a topology of 15 different meanings for what respondents found sexual in advertising. These categories were grouped within five overarching categories. A subset (40%) of the questionnaires were then coded independently by two coders to establish reliability. Intercoder reliability across the 15 categories was .91. The categories are listed and briefly described in Table 1. The gender of the model(s) and product category described by participants were also coded. The subject of the description was coded as being either female(s), male(s), or a heterosexual couple. In addition, responses to the second open-ended question were coded according to product categories.



Meanings for what participants perceived as sexy varied between physical characteristics of models (or actors) within ads, the models’ behaviors, intimate relations between models (proxemics), contextual features within the ad, and viewer fantasy. Table 1 presents a topology of what participants considered sexual as well as the proportion of the total sample, males, and females citing each characteristic. Significant comparisons are noted below.



Physical Characteristics. The predominant definition of what was considered sexy in advertising is physical characteristics. This definition included three categories of responses; references to clothing, general attractiveness, and physique. According to the responses to the first question, two-thirds (66%) of the respondents cited physical characteristics of people in ads as a defining characteristic. Although men were more likely than women to define sexiness in this way (71% vs 58%), the difference was not significant. However, of those who made reference to physical characteristics, men were more likely than women (M=1.43 vs M=1.17) to cite more physical aspects (t(93)=2.54, p<.05). There was no gender difference for clothing or physique, but references to physical attractiveness was mentioned twice as often by men than women and was significant (31% vs 15%), (c2=4.84, p<.05).



Movement. The next most frequently cited definition of what was considered sexy involved movement (39%). This category included generalized statements about behavior and verbal and nonverbal communication of models. For example, statements coded into this category included "[models that are] winking, stroking themselves," and, "flirting" or "dancing around." There were no significant gender differences for this definition or its sub-categories.

Contextual Features. Respondents also characterized sexiness in terms of contextual features (26%). These descriptions included camera effects, music, lighting, and setting. Women were more likely than men (35% vs 20%) to define closeness this way, (c2=3.93, p<.05). No gender differences emerged in respect to photographic effects, music, lighting, and setting. Women were, however, more likely to make reference to the black-and-white nature of the ad than were men (12% vs 0%), (c2=10.30, p<.01). While black-and-white ads may not be sexy in isolation, they were identified as a contributing factor by women and not men.

Proxemics. A gender difference emerged in the proxemics category as well. Respondents’ descriptions in this category made reference to the physical distance or relative interaction between models in the ad. One sixth of the total sample (15%) drew on this reference, but women cited it four times as often as men (28% vs 6%), (c2=13.54, p<.001).

Voyeurism, Fantasy, and Projection. The remaining category for sexiness was framed in terms of voyeurism, fantasy, an projection. Respondents (6%) made reference to the ad being like a fantasy, models making a connection with the viewer, projection of the viewer into the ad, or someone watching someone else in the ad. There were no significant gender differences in the use of these categories. Furthermore, since less than 10% of the sample identified this category, it was not considered a necessarily meaningful category.

Additional Differences

A gender difference appeared in respect to the sex of the people described in ads and types of products mentioned by participants. Men and women differed in respect to the subject (male, female, couple) of their description, (c2=62.85, p<.001). While men were more likely to describe an ad with a female or females, women were more likely to describe an ad with couples. The overall pattern of responses is reported in Table 2.

Last, participants differed by gender in the types of product categories cited when thinking about a sexual ad, (c2=16.94, p<.01). Table 2 presents a categorization of product category as well as the proportion of men and women citing each category. Men were more likely than women to mention ads for alcohol (e.g., beer), while women were more likely than men to mention ads for beauty products. Although the miscellaneous category represented more than 10% the responses, there were no more than two mentions per additional product category.


Message effects research in advertising can be only as precise as the concepts it seeks to make generalizations about. The first research question sought to discover what people consider sexy in advertising. We were able to identify 15 types of responses. By far, the most common referent was physical features. It was used by over 65% of the respondents. The prominence of this category attests to the importance American culture places on appearance as a component of sexual attraction. Clothing was the most frequently mentioned physical feature with over 50% of the participants making some reference to it. The frequency of this response corroborates past research in this area which has defined sexually oriented appeals in advertising as nudity and physical attractiveness (Caballero et al. 1989; LaTour 1990).


Physical attractiveness was the next most frequently mentioned category of physical features at 24%, followed by references to the body at 13%. Taken as a whole, these three sub-categories offer support to the most commonly used definition of sexual appeals in advertising research, namely, attractive nude or semi-nude models. Clearly, physical aspects of people are an important determinant of what receivers perceive as sexy in advertising.

The second research question sought to determine if males and females differed in what they considered sexy in advertising. Although there was no difference in the proportion who mentioned physical characteristics, of those referencing this category, men were more likely to mention more sub-categories. This finding lends credence to the notion that men are more visually-oriented than women in regard to sexual arousal. Feingold’s (1992) meta-analysis of personal ad and mate selection provides evidence which suggests men are more oriented toward physical characteristics than women. Similarly, Nevid (1984) found that men placed more importance on physical characteristics than women in choosing a sexual partner. So, while physical characteristics are an important component of sexual perception for both genders, it appears to be more pronounced for men.

An important finding is that physical features are not the only thing that contributes to sexiness in advertising. A model’s movements and verbal and nonverbal communication were the second largest category (37%) identified by respondets. This aspect of sexual stimuli has received cursory attention in the sexual appeal literature. In a notable exception, Bello et al. (1983) investigated the impact of a controversial Calvin Klein commercial featuring Brooke Shields on communication outcomes. Although Shields was attractive and clothed in tight fitting jeans, Bello et al. (1983) suggested that her pose and suggestive comments contributed to the provocative nature of the commercial. Berger (1974) said it well when he made the distinction between nude and naked: It is many things other than an absence of clothing which contribute to the sexual desire stimulated by another human being. Further evidence of this can be found in the literature on courtship and flirting behavior (Givens 1978; Scheflen 1965, 1974). Flirting is characterized by sexually provocative or inviting behaviors (Givens 1978). Unbuttoning clothing, rolling the pelvis, tilting or cocking the head to expose the neck, and preening behaviors have been identified as provocative behaviors and indicative of flirting. It is important to note that there was no gender difference for this category in our study. This may mean that women as well as men are aroused by the demeanor and behavior of models in advertising.

There was a significant gender difference in the third largest category: contextual features. References to photographic effects (e.g., "camera roams over the model"), setting, music, lighting, and whether the ad was filmed or shot in black-and-white were mentioned by 26% of the respondents. This category is distinctive from the two previously mentioned categories because it represents elements independent of the model within the ad. Over a third of women made reference to contextual features of the ad compared to one fifth of men (35% vs 20%). This finding suggests that romantic settings and music, exotic locales, and hazy shadows contribute to sexual perception in ads for women more than for men.

Proxemics, the fourth largest category (15%), was also made reference to by more women than men (28% vs 6%). References to proxemics included any mention of physical distance or relative interaction between the models. This finding suggests that interpersonal intimacy may be more of a component of what women perceive as sexual than men. Most women described a couple (64%) while most men described only females (84%). This finding seems to support the notion that females emphasize relatedness and emotional intimacy compared to men who appear to be more body-centered. This is congruent with research in anthropology (Townsend and Wasserman 1997) and psychology (Geer 1996). Although, physiological responses and cognitive measures may be similar, women may prefer sexual appeals that emphasize emotional intimacy (Baldwin and Baldwin 1997).

Last, the product categories represented by the ads mentioned as "sexy" differed by gender. While men were more likely to mention ads for alcohol (24% vs 4%), women were more likely to mention ads with beauty products (48% vs 17%). These results are not surprising given that each gender is the primary target market for the respective product category. It is interesting to note that only four categories were mentioned with any regularity: alcohol, clothing, beauty, and health/hygiene. If one locates these products on the FCB grid (Vaughn 1986) or the Rossiter-Percy grid (Rossiter et al. 1991), these products fit within the feeling or transformational quadrants, which suggests that the appeals are linked to products in which emotion and the desire to be sexually attractive to others play an important role.

Toward a Definition of Sexually Oriented Appeals in Advertising

The goal of this research was to initiate a process of reducing ambiguity surrounding the conceptualization of sexually oriented appeals. Previous definitions were more akin to what Teas and Palan (1997) would call the physical realm: Marketing research has placed more emphasis on operational development and analysis while ignoring the linguistic and conceptual domain. Up until now there has been little attention devoted to theconcepts that guided the operational definitions utilized in this area of research (for exception, see Gould 1992).

Are we any closer to a clearer conceptualization of this appeal? In some ways we are. For one, our search for a unifying theme as to the fundamental nature of a sexual appeal in the literature led us to a conclusion: That while some variety exists in terms of how researchers have defined sexually oriented appeals, that variety is actually limited to a very narrow perspective of what we believe should be a broader, more inclusive conceptualization. In other words, researchers have primarily focused on nudity to the exclusion of other ad features that contribute to the sexual nature of a persuasive message. What we discovered in some ways confirms previous research, as well it should. Physical features of people in these ads are a primary determinant of what receivers consider sexual. Beyond particular physical features, other important components contribute to what is perceived as sexual, including the model’s gender, how the model moves, in what context, and in relation to others.

We also argue that a clear conceptual definition is needed for guiding future research. For that reason, we recommend that sexually oriented appeals in advertising be defined as appeals perceived as sexual by the receiver. Sexual information in ads can be represented by a variety of stimuli but typically are depicted as physical features of people (e.g., clothing, attractiveness, physique), provocative behavior and demeanor, intimate interaction between people, and contextual features. We go one step further by recommending that the concept of "sex in advertising" be referred to as "sexually oriented appeals," much in the same respect fear appeals and humor appeals are labeled. Sexually oriented appeals should be considered a broad category of appeal that extends beyond the advertising context to message effects research in other areas such as persuasion and communication, social marketing, and health communication. In essence, we are arguing for a receiver-based definition of this concept more closely aligned with other types of emotionally-oriented appeals utilized in advertising.

Limitations. This investigation has several limitations that must be considered when attempting to make claims based on the findings. First, these effects cannot be generalized beyond the student convenience sample. There is evidence to suggest, however, that ads targeted to young adults contain a higher proportion of sexual ads than other age groups (Reichert and Ahern 1998). In addition, respondents were asked to describe ads they considered "sexy." This may limit the scope of ads recalled by respondents to those that are particularly sexually arousing and provocative compared to those containing other forms of sexual stimuli.


Respondents perceived sexual stimuli in a manner somewhat congruent with previous operationalizations of this message variable. For instance, physical characteristics of models and movement (behavior and demeanor) were important determinants mentioned equally by men and women. Women were more likely to make reference to contextual features and intimacy between the people in an ad. These categories provide a reference point to what previous researchers have typically defined as sex in advertising.

Future research should use the findings reported here as a guide for creating quantitative measures. The categories that were identified could help researchers develop a method for classifying sexually oriented ads according to their features. It is possible that ads that emphasize different components (physical features versus contextual features) may affect message processing and attitudes in fundamentally different ways. This could help researchers to approach the investigation of sexually oriented appeals in a more systematic anduniformed manner. Doing so may also help practitioners clearly identify intrinsic features that should be emphasized in creating an advertising campaign. Future research should also focus on replicating the findings reported in the study. Not only would this offer support for the categories uncovered in this investigation but replication may help determine if the 'Voyeurism, Fantasy, and Projection’ category should be included in the conceptualization. Furthermore, replications should attempt to incorporate different groups of respondents beyond those used in this sample. The possibility that minority populations may define these appeals differently needs to be examined as well. All of this would further contribute to our understanding of what constitutes sexually oriented appeals in advertising.


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