Consumers' Reactions to Sex in Tv Commercials

ABSTRACT - This paper explores viewers reactions to sexual material in TV commercials. Findings from a large scale quantitative survey and a small scale qualitative study are reported and implications for advertisers are discussed.


Deborah K. Johnson and Kay Satow (1978) ,"Consumers' Reactions to Sex in Tv Commercials", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 411-414.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 411-414


Deborah K. Johnson, Needham, Harper & Steers

Kay Satow, Needham, Harper & Steers


This paper explores viewers reactions to sexual material in TV commercials. Findings from a large scale quantitative survey and a small scale qualitative study are reported and implications for advertisers are discussed.


Last year's concern about sex and violence on television has switched to this year's concern about sex on TV. Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles about the new sexual permissiveness. But are consumers aware of this trend? Are they bothered by sex on the airwaves? And closer to our hearts, as an advertising agency, do they feel there is too much sex in commercials?

To answer these questions and more we fielded two studies: a quantitative lifestyle study and a qualitative follow-up to determine consumers reactions. Before presenting our results, we invite the reader to test his sexual I.Q. with the following test.


Please indicate whether you think each of the following statements is true or false. DO NOT copy from your neighbors.

T     F     1. Most people feel there is too little sex on commercials.

T     F     2. Older men are less concerned with sex on TV than younger men; thus the phrase "dirty old man."

T     F     3. Women who are concerned about sex on TV point to soap operas as prime offenders.

T     F     4. Unlike the discriminating younger women, older women hate all sexy commercials.

T     F     5. Many people don't find sexual innuendo offensive. They don't even know what it is.

T     F     6. Women expect sex in men's ads. After all men are beasts.


While published studies (e.g. TV Guide 1975) indicate that the majority of viewers object to the amount of sex on TV, we were not certain whether these objections extended to commercials as well as programs. For all we knew they may have felt there wasn't enough sex on commercials. To answer this question we turned to data from the Needham, Harper & Steers 1977 Life Style Study.

Every year NH&S mails a large scale consumer survey to 2000 married men and 2000 married women from the Market Facts' mail panel. Our response rate is high, averaging around 85% for women and 75% for men and the obtained sample matches the U.S. married population on age, education, income and area of residence. The Life Style Study includes over 850 questions covering a wide range of activities, interests, opinions, product usage and media habits. Luckily for us one of the questions directly concerned attitudes toward sex on commercials. Respondents were asked to indicate on a 6-point scale the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with the statement, "TV commercials place too much emphasis on sex."

The responses to this question, shown in Table 1 clearly illustrate that the majority of our respondents agreed that TV commercials place too much emphasis on sex, and also that women tend to feel more strongly about this than men (79% of the women and 68% of the men showed at least moderate agreement with the statement).



We discovered also that Age and Education are related to the degree of concern expressed over sex in commercials. As shown in Tables 2 and 3 strong agreement with the statement that "TV commercials place too much emphasis on sex" increases with age and decreases with education for both men and women.





So far our findings made a good deal of sense and had presented us with no great surprises.


The NH&S Life Style Study also asks about TV program viewership. We expected to find that TV preferences would reflect concern over the amount of sexual material on TV. For example, we expected concerned women to watch family shows, certain situation comedies and other wholesome TV fare. Table 4 presents some of the favorite TV programs of these women. Some of these shows made perfect sense to us. The Waltons, Walt Disney, Little House on the Prairie are all about as wholesome as you can get. Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda are basically nice girls and Archie Bunker would be just as upset about sex in commercials as respondents are. BUT there at the far right hand portion of the Table is a show that doesn't seem to belong, that makes no sense at all, that boggles the mind.



Over 40% of these women watch Soap Operas. Yet soap operas are filled with sexual material - bedhopping, infidelity, promiscuity, etc., etc. The attitude that there was too much sex on TV seemed totally incompatible with the behavior of watching soaps. It was at this point that we realized that we really had no idea as to what exactly people meant when they said that TV commercials have too much sex.

So we decided to stop looking at numbers and to start talking to some real live consumers. Six focus groups were conducted in September, 1977: three with blue-collar homemakers; three with white-collar homemakers. Women were also segregated by age: two groups were conducted with younger women, 18-25; two groups of middle-aged women, 30-40; and two groups with women 55+ years of age or older. All were married homemakers. Because our goal was to determine precisely what people were objecting to in terms of sex on TV, respondents were all prerecruited to agree with the statement, "TV commercials place too much emphasis on sex".

We began the groups by asking what TV programs they liked to watch. And sure enough, just as in the quantitative study, Family and soap operas were right up there with more wholesome TV shows. Why the anomaly?

Respondents were quick to point out there was no anomaly in their minds. They don't object to all sex on TV. They object to the wrong kinds of sex on TV. They like soap operas; they loathe Soap. Why the distinction?

They say sex is OK under certain conditions. It's all right when sex is implicit, not explicit. They rarely show anything in soap operas; you're saved the potential embarrassment by a quick cut-away. Sex is also all right when handled in a moral context. In soap operas, the heroes and villains are broadly drawn and easily recognizable. The sinners are eventually punished; the good guys are rewarded. They also say sex is always all right when you're prepared for it. And you're rarely more prepared than when watching a soap. Soap operas and Family also have the virtue of being shown at suitable hours, either the kids are away at school during the day, or safely tucked in bed at night.

Soap, on the other hand, is seen as being just the opposite. It doesn't show sex in a moral context; sex is treated lightly and deviant sexual behavior is condoned. Because it's immoral sex, respondents are far more likely to feel that any sexual nuance or innuendo is by default explicit.


After exploring our respondents' attitudes toward sex on television we turned to the topic of commercials. We asked the women to give us examples of commercials that had "too much sex". The following commercials were mentioned most frequently: Noxema Shave Cream, Bic Lighter, Bic Razor, Ultra Bright, Muriel Cigars, Pearl Drops Underalls, Aviance, Shower Massage, Chicago Health Club, Tickle. Also mentioned frequently were a variety of commercials for "intimate" feminine products. After a general discussion about sex in commercials we showed the women four of these commercials (Bic Razor, Under-ails, Muriel Cigars, Aviance Perfume) and explored their reactions in some detail.

By the end of our groups we felt we had a pretty good idea of what these women find offensive in commercials and why.


The Bic Razor commercial is a prime example of sexual innuendo. Here is a brief synopsis: It is a young man's wedding day. His sly uncle tells him to use Bic and get stroked in the morning (get it?) At the wedding his bride to be announces that he got stroked that very morning and now will get stroked every morning. The groom looks embarrassed, as well he might.

The young women in our groups characterized sexual innuendo as crude locker room humor. They found such suggestive insinuations embarrassing when others were present and offensive at all times. Any why shouldn't they feel this way - wouldn't everyone?

Well, not quite everyone. The older women saw nothing offensive in the Bic commercial and thought, in fact, it was kind of cute. When the moderator pointed out that the young women had found it offensive, the Edith Bunker syndrome took over. Older women would pause, look puzzled, furrow their brows, and then say, "Ohhhhh .... they couldn't mean.." Older women concluded only people with dirty minds would think that; younger women all had dirty minds. The only point about Bic that everyone agreed on was, "Well, at least it will go over the kids heads. They're not going to ask me about it".


Consider this advertising for Underalls: Two girls are walking down the street away from the camera. The camera zooms in on their -uh- rear ends. One girl looks terrific. The other has panty lines and looks just awful. The girl with the problem tells us that Underalls "make you look like I wish I looked."

In discussing what they hate in commercials women repeatedly mentioned that really intimate products should not be advertised on TV at all, and while panty hose may be considered less intimate than Kotex, it still constitutes an intimate product. In addition, women had already told us that certain parts of the body are inherently offensive and surely rear ends would fall into that category. We were therefore fully expecting our respondents to render scathing judgement upon this ad as it combined two inherently offensive elements - intimate products and bodily parts.

But in fact they liked it and didn't find it offensive at all. Sure the commercial focused on rear ends, but that was part of the product's reason for being. Panty lines are part of life; Underalls one way to get around them. As long as focusing on rear ends focuses the viewers attention on the product's primary benefit, it's not offensive.

The supposition that a focus on the product's primary benefit rather than on sex is important in mitigating offensiveness is supported by womens' reactions to another version of the Underalls ad. This particular ad ends with the line "Underalls makes me look like I'm not wearing nothing," and women hate it.

In addition to being grammatically incorrect, looking like one is not wearing nothing is not viewed as a primary benefit of buying Underalls. Women don't want to look like they are not wearing nothing and don't like people who do.


What is a male fantasy ad? Well, let us give you an example. The ad for Muriel cigars is a male fantasy ad and goes something like this: A man sits working in his office alone at night and pulls out a cigar. A super-sexy woman appears from nowhere and lights his cigar. She sings that he should let Muriel turn him on while she slithers around the office and ends up sitting on his lap.

You can always spot a male fantasy ad by the presence of two key elements: (1) foxy ladies, and (2) scenarios written by sexist piggy writers. The young women in our groups found this ad the most offensive of all the ads we showed them. Not only do they object to ads that place women in demeaning roles (lighting cigars, being at a man's beck and call) B as any liberated woman would Bbut in addition to that they find male fantasy ads personally threatening. Sexy women in ads make them wonder, "Is that how my husband wishes I looked?" This particular ad made them wonder, "Is that what my husband does at the office late?" Male fantasy ads contain unusually attractive women in unrealistic situations. It is this very lack of realism that young women find threatening and offensive.

But older women liked this commercial. Why? In part their consciousness hasn't been raised; it doesn't dawn on them that they should be offended. And even if the thought had crossed their minds they say, "Listen, honey. At my age anything that will get him excited just ain't half bad." In fact, one 64 year old grandmotherly type named Dorothy could hardly wait to get home and slink around her cigar-smoking husband singing, "Let Dorothy turn you on, that is my desire..." Moreover, they assert sex is always OK for traditional men's products. After all, they're advertising to men, not to them.


If the Muriel ad is an example of a male fantasy ad then the Aviance ad is an example of a female fantasy ad: A beautiful young wife and mother is in the kitchen decked out in apron, rubber gloves - the whole housewife bit. Suddenly she begins a striptease while a female voice sings that she has had a full day of motherhood but is going to have an Aviance night. Scene shifts and she's in a bathtub full of Aviance bubble bath. Scene shifts and she's spraying Aviance perfume down her half opened blouse. Scene shifts to her fantastically handsome husband arriving at the door with flowers.

As it turns out young blue collar women hate female fantasy ads almost as much as they hate male fantasy ads. While they report that the bath scene and striptease are mildly offensive the main reason they hate this ad is because it portrays an unrealistic unattainable situation. They would all like to be in that situation but their lives just aren't like that. Their husbands don't come to the door with flowers like that and probably don't look like that either. Nor can they so conveniently get rid of their kids at night. They are unable to empathize with such female fantasy ads; instead they find them threatening and therefore offensive.

This time it was white collar young women who disagreed. The Aviance commercial was one of their favorites. They empathize with the commercial, and know just what it feels like to be in her situation. Maybe their husbands don't look quite like that, but they'd like them to. And they say it's good to show their children that "mothers and fathers love each other." The two older segments were split: some liked it, some couldn't relate, and some were just plain neutral.


There is one thing that women of all ages agree on. Immorality offends them. The ads for both Bic Razors and Muriel Cigars violated our respondents' moral standards, which can be briefly summarized as follows: Physical intimacy should only occur between consenting married adults (and even then only off-camera). In the Bic commercial he got "stroked" and they weren't even married yet. The Muriel ad was even worse - they weren't even engaged. At least the Aviance ad was about married people (and all of our groups made reference to this fact.)


We think we've learned several things about commercials from this study. All offensive commercials are not created equal: they're not equally offensive, they're not offensive for the same reason, and they're not even offensive to the same people. But one still unanswered question occurred to us. Which is more offensive: sexy programs, or sexy commercials?

Even though some TV commercials are considered pretty offensive it made sense to us that TV programs would be considered even worse. For one thing TV programs last longer than commercials. If a commercial contains offensive material it will be over in a minute or less, but offensive programs go on and on and on. And besides sexual material is far more explicit on programs. And finally - how would any commercial possibly be as offensive as Soap which church groups have called: "leering sensationalism under the guise of comedy."

So we thought. Actually these groups were more offended by commercials. For one thing, there's no time for elaborate plot development B in fact for almost any plot development in a 30 or 60-second commercial. Any sex used comes through that much clearer. And as a corollary they say you don't know sex is coming in a TV commercial. In TV programs, they build (and sometimes build and build) to sexual scenes; in commercials, wham bam, and it's over. Finally, they say sexy television commercials are harder to avoid. You know not to watch certain programs because you find them offensive. But commercials hit you out of the blue. By the time you get up to turn the channel, the offensive commercial is over.


What do we think all this means? We think it means several things. First, sex is acceptable for certain products, products with no other reason for being than to increase allurement: cosmetics, perfume, and after-shave all fall in this category. Sex is also okay for advertising traditional masculine products, at least for non-liberated women: sex and beer, cars, liquor, and cigars mesh beautifully.

In addition, sex is permissible in female fantasies for young white collar women and male fantasies for older women. Sex is also all right when used in morally acceptable, e.g. married, situations. And finally sex can be used when it's closely tied to the product's primary benefit.

We also learned that, for women at least, a commercial offensiveness depends in part on the viewing situation B on whether the viewer is alone or with others. Commercials are more offensive when others are present. Children giggle and ask difficult questions, husbands giggle and make offensive comments, and the presence of guests such as "my uncle, the priest" causes embarrassment. In the case of TV commercials, sex is more fun alone.

Finally, consumers, or at least these six groups, believe that television is an intrusive medium. Yes, you invite television into your home, but no, you don't want it to embarrass you. And even more than embarrassment, you don't want it to foster immorality or to change existing sexual mores. Women aren't worried about changing their own mores. They're worried about people with impressionable minds, most specifically, their young children and all "those weirdos out there" who can be confused quite easily, and taught values the respondents don't believe in. As far as these women were concerned, TV not only mirrors social norms, it can change them. And that's potentially dangerous.



Deborah K. Johnson, Needham, Harper & Steers
Kay Satow, Needham, Harper & Steers


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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