The Role of Sexually-Oriented Stimuli in Advertising: Theory and Literature Review

ABSTRACT - In recent years there has been an increase in the use of sexual themes and erotic stimuli in advertising. This paper proposes some theoretical concepts through which the effects of these stimuli may be understood. Empirical research from consumer behavior and psychology is reviewed. Together, the theoretical and empirical components of the paper provide guidance for future research.


R. Dale Wilson and Noreen K. Moore (1979) ,"The Role of Sexually-Oriented Stimuli in Advertising: Theory and Literature Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 55-61.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 55-61


R. Dale Wilson, The Pennsylvania State University

Noreen K. Moore (student), The Pennsylvania State University


In recent years there has been an increase in the use of sexual themes and erotic stimuli in advertising. This paper proposes some theoretical concepts through which the effects of these stimuli may be understood. Empirical research from consumer behavior and psychology is reviewed. Together, the theoretical and empirical components of the paper provide guidance for future research.


It almost goes without saying that today's consumers are exposed to more sex in advertising than ever before. This trend towards the increasing depiction of sexually-oriented themes in advertising is evident upon even the most casual inspection of print and broadcast media. In general, advertising copywriters use nudity, romantic themes, or suggestiveness to draw attention to specific advertisements and their sponsoring products. In the marketplace of today, the use of such explicitly or implicitly sexually-oriented ads seems to be especially popular for parity products that must compete intensely for consumers' attention (Danielenko, 1974).

The use of sex in advertising has important social, managerial, and public policy implications. These implications hinge, of course, on the desired portrayal of women in contemporary society, the conditions under which advertising and marketing managers should and should not use sexually-oriented stimuli in communicating with consumers vis-a-vis competitors, and the impact of such communications on certain consumer groups (e.g., children). Other broad issues, such as the overall image of corporate advertising and consumers' rights in avoiding media content which they deem offensive also must be considered when sexually-oriented advertising is evaluated.

But despite the importance of sexually-oriented advertising and its increased use, little research has been directed towards measuring the impact of such advertisements on consumer awareness, attitudes, or behavior. And, perhaps more importantly, little thought seems to have been given to those theoretical concepts which may be useful in understanding the effectiveness of sexually-oriented ads. Most of the available information takes the "Look Ma--No Theory" approach that has recently been discussed by Jacoby (1976, 1978). By and large, there has been no effort to rely on theory to suggest those variables which are most important in understanding consumer response to sexually-oriented advertising stimuli; and the differences in individual psychological make-up which can cause opposite consumer reactions to the same ad are not well delineated at the current time. As a result of these shortcomings, very little is known about sex in advertising and how it may be expected to interact with other variables to arouse, motivate, offend, or otherwise affect target and non-target consumer populations.

The purpose of this paper is to help fill the void caused by a lack of theoretical and empirical attention to the area of sexually-oriented advertising communications. First, the paper reviews several potentially useful theoretical bases for predicting and understanding the effect of sexy advertisements. In this discussion, emphasis is placed on 1) the hypothesized differential effects of a sexually-oriented advertisement versus a non-sexual theme and 2) why these differences might be expected to occur. Secondly, this article summarizes the limited amount of research from marketing and consumer behavior as well as from clinical and social psychology which uses sexually-oriented objects as stimuli. Lastly, the paper discusses some important directions for future research.



An understanding of the concept of arousal is central to the understanding of the effects of sexually-based stimuli on consumer attention and recall. Arousal does not seem to be well understood in a consumer context, and little consumer research has been directed towards uncovering its specific role in the processing of brand-related information by consumers. Its importance, however, has been documented by direct attention in at least two comprehensive models of consumer behavior (Hansen, 1972; Howard, 1977) and in the area of consumer novelty seeking behavior (Venkatesan, 1973).

Arousal, usually defined as the degree of tension in the body, is a physiological state which gives rise to attention and search in the consumer decision-making process (Howard, 1977, p. 136). In the context of sexually-oriented stimuli, arousal caused by such stimuli can be thought to relate directly to attention toward the particular advertisement and may be mediated by the consumers' innate motivational state. Sexually-oriented ads may also relate to consumer reaction through stimulus ambiguity since an unexpected or surprise stimulus (one form of ambiguity as defined by Howard and Sheth (i969, p. 158) and Howard (1977, p. 140) guides the consumer search process. In this way, arousal can be thought to be a form of consumer motivation though its tension-producing effects are not well delineated.

The impact of environmental stimulation by a sexually-oriented advertisement may be illustrated by an equilibrium" model in which a consumer is initially at an equilibrium with regard to sex. When a sensory input (an erotic ad, for example) is presented to the consumer, a disequilibrium state may be created since the incoming cue is associated with an innate motive (sexual activity). Psychological and perhaps physiological tension produced by the disequilibrium may then cause increased cognitive activity directed towards the ad and/or the advertised product. This enhanced level of information processing then will interact with the consumer's stable value system to produce an affective evaluation of the ad and, consequently, the product being advertised. The overall product image can thus be affected by the interaction of the type of stimulus object (and the context in which the stimulus is presented) with thc structure of values and beliefs held by the receiver of the advertising message.

Of major importance in this process is the increased cognitive activity produced by the disequilibrium amount of arousal. A non-sexually-oriented stimulus may not have caused the same degree of arousal. The primary conclusion that must be drawn from arousal theory is that, relative to a non-sexy ad, a sexually-oriented communication will (perhaps significantly) increase the level of consumer attention to the ad. However, there is no reason to believe that increased attention will positively affect consumer attitudes and purchase behavior. On the contrary, it is very likely that for consumer groups with certain sets of values, the image of the brand may deteriorate.

In addition to its attention to individual consumer differences in the form of values, arousal theory can also be used to understand the impact of sexual stimuli deemed irrelevant in certain advertising situations. Probably the best known form of irrelevant sex in advertising is the inclusion of a female model with no logical relation to the product, who performs only a decorative function (cf., Courtney and Lockeretz, 1971; Venkatesan and Losco, 1975). Available theory and research suggests that advertisements with such "sex object" cues may be tuned out since arousal actually inhibits the impact of irrelevant information (Howard, 1977, p. 143). Especially in a routinized (or nearly routinized) buying decision, such an advertising communication would not indicate that the advertised product would meet the consumer's rather well-defined set of choice criteria. Therefore, the effectiveness of the ad, both in terms of cognitive affect and search motivation, may be much less than for an ad which depicts the brand in a more meaningful, product-relevant way.

Arousal theory also suggests some considerations regarding the measurement of sensory response to sexually-oriented advertising. Relative to an effective non-sexual ad, an effective sexy advertisement might be expected to cause physiological responses that could be tracked by monitoring devices. Among these are galvanic skin response, pupil dilation, eye movements, response speed, heart beat, and breathing patterns. Recall and attitude measurement could determine consumers' evaluative responses and intended behavior, as well as the amount of learning which occurred during the exposure to the sexually-oriented ad.

Selective Perception

Another of the set of theoretical concepts which may be used to understand the effects of sexually-oriented advertising stimuli is selective perception. Usually defined as the complex process by which consumers select, organize, and interpret sensory stimulation (Berelson and Steiner, 1967, p. 141), selective perception can be used as the theoretical basis for studying the strength and ambiguity of sexually-oriented ads. Research results in the area of absolute thresholds, differential thresholds, and sensory projection of ambiguous stimuli may provide important clues as to how consumers ultimately interpret and evaluate advertisements using sexual themes.

Often used to explain consumer response to pricing stimuli (cf., Monroe, 1973), the absolute threshold marks the lower limit of sensory stimulation. In the case of sexually-oriented advertising, such an ad must be of a certain intensity before its sexual meaning may be grasped. "Suggestive" messages must, therefore, fall above the absolute perceptual threshold before their sexual connotations are understood by those who see or hear the ad. [An excellent illustration of the role of absolute threshold levels in explaining consumer response to sexual innuendo in advertising is provided by Johnson and Satow (1978) in their discussion of the "Edith Bunker reaction" to a BIC Razor commercial by a group of older women.] Individual differences and environmental factors will also affect the consumer's ability to perceive sexually-implicit stimuli.

Also useful in understanding perceptual influences on advertising stimuli is the differential threshold, the minimum difference in two or more stimuli which causes a change in discrimination among those stimuli. This minimum amount of change necessary to produce a "just noticeable difference" (or j.n.d.) may be useful in explaining the difference between a sexually-oriented stimulus perceived as being tasteful, meaningful, and appealing and another stimulus perceived as tasteless and offensive. In other words, the degree of intensity of the stimulus or the context in which the stimulus is presented will make the difference in consumers' perception of and reaction to sex in advertising.

Closely related to threshold levels is the ambiguity of the stimulus object. Theoretical discussions of stimulus ambiguity (e.g., Berelson and Steiner, 1967, pp. 155-57; Howard and Sheth, 1969, pp. 156-67) stress that an ambiguous object is likely to be perceived in a way which is consistent with the individual's experiences, prior beliefs, and enduring values. In other words, "perceptual constancy" causes consumers to perceive ambiguous stimuli in congruence with their existing cognitive structures. Further, there seems to be an observable relationship between stimulus ambiguity and arousal which affects an individual's response to sexually-oriented stimuli. In an applications sense, advertisers may be well advised to employ moderately ambiguous themes which may be perceived as sexually-oriented by some viewers (and thus cause arousal) but may fall below the threshold of other viewers (and thus may avoid offending them). As noted previously, however, there may be a significant difference between arousal caused by observing a sexy ad and enhanced brand image or persuasion due to the ad.


Notwithstanding the importance of arousal and selective perception in understanding the impact of sexually-oriented communications, self-concept (or self-image) theory may also make a contribution. The reader is referred to discussions of the theoretical and empirical work in self-concept in Hansen (1972, pp. 362-3, 377-80), Howard (1977, pp. 89-92), and Engel et al. (1978, pp. 141-3) for a thorough review of this topic.

In the context of sexually-oriented advertising, it seems important to consider the influence of both actual and ideal self-concept. Anecdotal evidence to this effect is provided in Johnson and Satow's (1978) discussion of female fantasy ads. Theoretically, a viewer of a sexually-oriented advertisement would be expected to evaluate the ad on the basis of the role of the actors or models in the ad. In the case of a "sexy" female model, a female viewer would be more likely to project herself into the situation if she perceives herself as actually being sexy (actual self-concept) or, perhaps more importantly, if she wants to be sexy (ideal self-concept). The crucial point is that the stimulus should be congruent with either actual or ideal self-image in order to serve as a link between the viewer of the ad and the advertised product.

The role of self-concept may also be valuable in explaining the negative reaction of feminist women's groups to sex in advertising, especially the use of female models solely as sex objects. These critics would not tend to project themselves into the advertisement since their values are diametrically opposed to those embodied in the female model. The result of this situation is an appropriate negative response. The advertiser is perceived as attempting to manipulate consumers by using a socially undesirable appeal (degradation). Other female viewers, who are not cognizant of a manipulative intent and whose values are consistent with the model's role, may respond favorably to the same ad. Self-concept theory suggests that a sexually-oriented stimulus must be appropriate for the product and congruent to the values of the recipient of the ad in order for the desired response or projection to occur. Only then will a favorable brand image be created or maintained by association with the stimulus.


Originally stemming from the early research in communications conducted in conjunction with the Yale Communication and Attitude Change Program, the study of distraction effects now plays a central role in understanding the impact of persuasive messages. While the experimental evidence seems contradictory (Karlins and Abelson, 1970, pp. 15-18), some research results seem to have strong implications for the role of sex in advertising. Based upon the findings reported by Haaland and Venkatesan (1968) and Zimbardo et al. (1968) and others, communications employing moderately distracting stimuli which positively reinforce the consumer will probably be more persuasive than other types of distraction and perhaps than no distraction at all.

In terms of sexually-oriented advertising, the available research would seem to indicate that sexual distraction, even if it is irrelevant to the product being advertised, can play a positive role in the communications process. Even though distraction hypotheses do not form the theoretical bases for the reported research on sex in advertising, there is evidence that distraction provides the rationale for its practical use. Danielenko (1974) cites an argument for using sex in advertising based on the premise of blocking counterarguments of a hostile receiver. The claim is that a sexy stimulus distracts the consumer and no counterarguments are initiated. The result is that the consumer remembers less about the ad, but is persuaded more than if a non-distracting stimulus is used.

With respect to this interpretation of the Yale studies in an advertising context, one qualifier seems appropriate In advertising a sexual stimulus is likely to be the attention getter; successful processing of the ad content then depends on the transferal of attention to the advertising message. The chance of this happening may decrease as the irrelevancy of the stimulus to the product increases. The success of the irrelevant stimulus in the Yale may stem from the fact that the primary focus of was the persuasive message, so that some processing of that message was guaranteed. This could be investigated empirically; in any case distraction theory seems a useful foundation for further research.

Aggression Theory

The long-held contention that sexual and aggressive motives are correlated provides the structure for much of the current literature in aggression theory. Space limitations do not allow a review of this literature, but the interested reader is referred to Bandura (1971), Baron (1974), Jaffe et al. (1974), and Baron (1978) for current perspectives. The important point from this line of thinking is the possibility that there may be a connection between sexually-oriented stimuli and aggressive behavior on the part of individuals who are exposed to these stimuli.

A thorough review of the aggression/sexual stimuli literature reveals no managerial significance coming from this body of knowledge. But, undoubtedly, there would be strong social and public policy implications if the data revealed evidence of a positive relationship (or, worse yet, a cause and effect relationship) between viewing sexually-oriented stimuli and aggressive behavior. This possibility serves as the reasoning behind the inclusion of a brief review of aggression theory results. These results, as well as results from other areas relevant to sexually-oriented advertising, are summarized in the following section of this paper.


The frequent use of sexual stimuli in advertising testifies to a widespread belief in its effectiveness. However, little research has been directed at justifying this faith or delineating the nature of the presumed benefits. This section reviews six marketing studies that have addressed this topic and summarizes some psychological literature on human response to erotic stimuli

The psychology literature can be divided into two areas which seem relevant to advertising: (1) sex differences in response to erotica and (2) the effects of erotic stimuli on aggressive tendencies. One important limitation on the generalizability of these results to advertising concerns the degree of eroticism of the stimuli used. Psychological research typically contains pictures or films of explicit sexual acts which by comparison make the most daring advertising erotica seem mild. Responses to such disparate levels of sexual stimuli may differ in kind as well as degree. Despite this limitation, this research may provide insight into the effects of sexually-oriented communications messages.


An issue of great social concern is how sexually-arousing stimuli affects aggressive behavior. Aside from the obvious implications for censorship of pornography there is an ethical problem regarding the use of erotic advertisements in marketing. Many psychology experiments in the last decade have attempted to resolve this issue. Results of these studies have varied.

Contrary to prior expectations, mildly erotic stimuli most frequently decreased subsequent aggressive behavior by subjects angered by a confederate (Baron, 1978; Frodi, 1977; Baron and Bell, 1977; Donnerstein et al., 1975; Baron, 1974). Exposure to highly explicit stimuli increased aggression in angered subjects in some instances (Donnerstein and Barrett, 1978; Jaffee et al., 1974; Meyer, 1962), but had no effect in others (Baron and Bell, 1977; Donnerstein et al., 1975). Studies which manipulated the gender of the confederate found no variations in aggression due to this factor (Donnerstein and Barrett, 1978; Jaffe et al., 1974).

Compared to the stimuli used in these psychological studies, sexually-oriented stimuli generally used in legitimate advertising are not likely to be classified as highly erotic. At the current time, the available studies provide no evidence that the use of mildly erotic stimuli in advertising is socially irresponsible due to its provoking aggressive behavior.

Sex Differences in Response to Erotica

Psychological research has recently challenged a time-honored stereotype about gender differences in response to erotic stimuli. In 1953, a survey of American women reported that they were not aroused by erotic stimuli (Kinsey et al., 1953), and subsequent surveys periodically corroborated this finding. Contradictions began to emerge only in the experimental research of the 1970's. Discussion of these works will cover two primary areas: sex differences in arousal by erotica, and sex differences in effective/evaluative ratings of erotica. As discussed previously, sexual arousal may have an effect on information seeking or serve as a distractor from counterarguing, thus increasing advertising effectiveness. In addition, the affect and evaluation of an advertising stimulus could conceivably generalize to the advertisement, product, and sponsoring company. Differential response by males and females to erotic stimuli would imply that effective use of this device is dependent on the ad's target audience.

In several studies, measures of general sexual aroused when subjects were shown erotica revealed no sex differences (Schmidt, 1975; Schmidt and Sigusch, 1970). Males reported a greater overall arousal in research by Sigusch et al. (1970), yet there was no sex difference in frequency of genital excitation in response to those stimuli. Empirical evidence also contradicted the stereotype of women being more aroused by romantic, emotional stimuli (Fisher and Byrne, 1978; Schmidt, 1975).

Despite these findings, there do still appear to be some sex differences in reaction to erotica. In Schmidt's (1975) study, women reported more arousal than men to a "same sex" stimulus (referring to the sex of the subject observer and the sex of the actor in the stimulus). And in other research (Griffitt, 1973; Schmidt and Sigusch, 1970), females reported less arousal than men, to the depiction of less conventional sexual acts. Women also reported more emotional arousal during and after observation of erotic stimuli (Sigusch and Schmidt, 1970). It must be emphasized that even when mean differences between sexes were significant, individual variation was great, with segments of the female samples reporting more arousal than the average male in several such instances (Schmidt and Sigusch, 1970; Schmidt et al., 1970).

The same studies also measured affect and evaluation for the erotic stimuli, and a pattern of sex differences did emerge. Females were more likely than males to label the stimuli as pornographic and give ratings of disgust, anger and nausea (Fisher and Byrne, 1978; Griffitt, 1970). Women also tended to evaluate stimuli using "same sex" and romantic stimuli more favorably and erotica depicting less conventional sexual acts less favorably than did males (Schmidt, 1975; Sigusch et al., 1970; Schmidt and Sigusch, 1970). An exception to this pattern was reported by Fisher and Byrne (1978), who found no sex differences in affect for stimuli, regardless of erotic theme.

From the evidence cited thus far, male and female subjects seem to have similar physical reactions to sexual stimuli. Both respond to erotica with arousal, and both generally respond more strongly to stimuli involving the opposite sex. The cognitions which accompany that arousal appear to vary more. Females have a greater tendency to evaluate erotic stimuli negatively, with possible adverse implications for product advertising. The more favorable evaluation of "same sex" stimuli by women would indicate that their use would be more appropriate for female than male products. However, there may be a greater tendency in an advertising situation to project oneself into the illustration rather than regarding the actor in the stimulus as an object of desire, thereby mitigating the negative reaction by males to same sex stimuli.

Consumer Research on Sexual Stimuli in Advertising

In the marketing literature, six studies have examined the use of sexual stimuli in advertising. This small body of work is, unfortunately, not cohesive. The studies have approached different aspects of the phenomenon, using widely varying designs and variables. A comparison of the major characteristics of each is given in Table 1. Due to their disparity, each study can best be analyzed in the context of the major question it addresses.

Consumers' Attitudes on the Amount of Sex in Advertising. Wise, King, and Merenski (1974) asked a large sample of college-age respondents and their parents to rate the extent of their agreement with the statement "Advertisers make too much use of sexual appeals in ads." The only significant variables were age and sex; females and older respondents agreed more frequently. The finding that females have a more negative affect for erotica than do males is consistent with psychological research.

Application of these results to a decision about whether to use a sexual appeal for an older and/or female target market is nonetheless unwarranted. The attitude statement used is broadly phrased. Agreement may indicate that only some sexual appeals are sexist or in bad taste, that all erotic advertisements are immoral, or even that some reach an inappropriate audience such as children. Reactions of females and older consumers to a tasteful, appropriate sexual appeal could well be favorable. The dimensions of the sexy ads to which these groups objected should be explored.

Dimensions Which Consumers Perceived in Sexual Stimuli. Morrison and Sherman (1972) asked Ss to rate a total of 100 advertisements on six dimensions. Clustering techniques were used to determine similarities across respondents' ratings for both sexes. The research pointed to several interesting findings. First, women differed most in their tendency to perceive nudity; of those who did perceive it, 68% reported being aroused. Secondly, not all men perceived nudity in the ads. Sexual arousal was not contingent on the degree of nudity in the ad; like women, men can be aroused by suggestive and mildly sexually-oriented stimuli. Thirdly, women tended to reported both romantic theme and sexual arousal perceptions, or neither. This contradicts the findings from psychological research that arousal for women is not contingent on a romantic, affectionate theme. Lastly, female groups did not differ in their tendency to perceive copy suggestiveness, while male groups did. Copy suggestiveness may, therefore, be a more important variable for women than formerly thought.

A few methodological points in the Morrison and Sherman study prevent unqualified acceptance of these results. The input for the clustering involved ratings on different ads. Clustering respondents on the similarity of their perceptions of different stimuli may have resulted in the grouping of individuals who had seen similar ads, rather than the grouping of people who have a general tendency to perceive similar dimensions.

Sexual Stimuli and Recall/Recognition Measures. In a study designed to investigate brand recall, Steadman (1969) found that non-sexual illustrations resulted in better recall of brand names with which they were paired than did sexual illustrations. This effect remained in a retest one week later. Recall did not vary according to the degree of eroticism of the sexual illustrations. Respondents who favored use of sex in advertising had better recall of brand names paired with sexual illustrations than did other respondents. Although plagued by problems of external validity, the findings of Steadman's research have found further empirical support.

Alexander and Judd (1978) partially replicated the Stead-man study and included several methodological improvements Their study found poorer "brand recall" for those ads with a female model as opposed to ads which include inanimate objects. Surprisingly, there was no difference in recall for brands paired with a picture of a model's face and neck and brands paired with a full length picture of a nude model. This fact suggests the possibility that the human element rather than nudity per se is responsible for the worse recall. The higher interest created by the human pictures may have distracted subjects from learning "brand names." However, that same feature could be advantageous in a realistic setting, since it may increase the likelihood of the ad getting any attention in the first place.

The most convincing evidence for the lack of impact of sexual stimuli on brand name recognition is presented by Chestnut et al. (1977). Here, the presence of decorative models improved ad recognition but had no effect on brand name recognition. Overall, ad recognition was significantly greater than brand name recognition. These differences were attributed to variations in the encoding process.

The existence of a badly needed theoretical framework in the Chestnut et al. study generates some provocative questions for future research. Interesting issues include the roles of repetition and stimulus/product congruency in the encoding process. It seems clear that an approach based on these theoretical perspectives holds the promise of obtaining less equivocal results than have been thus far demonstrated.



Sexual Stimuli, Ad Appeal, Product Quality, and Company Reputation. Peterson and Kerin (1977) conducted an experiment in which "mock up" ads were varied by product (body oil vs. wrenches) and model (none vs. demure vs. seductive vs. nude). The seductive model/body oil ad elicited the best evaluations on ad appeal, product quality, and company reputation. Nude model/body oil received the worst evaluation on these dimensions. Males tended to rate all of the ads more favorably on each variable than did females.

It was expected that favorability of evaluations would increase as product/model congruency increased, which was supported by the overall worse evaluation of the wrench ads which included a model. But some exceptions are puzzling. The nude model/wrench ad was evaluated more favorably on appeal and product quality than was the nude model/body oil ad, even though the latter is undoubtedly more congruent.

The overall relatively negative evaluations for the nude model ads should not necessarily exclude their use. The study did demonstrate the effect of sexual appeal/product congruency; perhaps the discovery of other influential variables will reveal under what conditions nude stimuli may profitably be used. The Peterson and Kerin (1977) study is only a beginning in uncovering such variables and interactions, but it demonstrates a successful use of the experimental paradigm necessary to do so.


The research reviewed in this paper has identified many factors which may influence the effectiveness of sexually-oriented advertising communications. Determining the relative importance of each and the ways in which they interact is a major undertaking for future research. Focus groups, like those used by Johnson and Satow (1978), may be helpful in identifying and probing these dimensions. The need for experimentation and information processing research methods seems an inescapable conclusion.

Multiple measures of advertising effectiveness seem essential for future research, but design should vary somewhat with the measures of concern. For instance, a realistic setting is of great importance for studies of brand recall, but may be of little consequence in measuring arousal. New physiological measurement techniques might be borrowed from psychological research on erotica. For example, reliability and validity checks on a measurement device for female sexual arousal called a photoplethysmographic probe have shown excellent results. The measure appears to be without artifacts and does not seem to interfere with attention to the stimuli. Both of these characteristics are improvements over a pencil and paper measure of arousal (Wincze, Hoon, and Hoon, 1977).

One problem inherent in any experimental work dealing with advertising effectiveness is the quality of the experimental ads. An effective advertisement has multiple components, and neglecting any of these threatens to negate the managerial value of research findings. For instance, the lighting, facial expression, body position, background, etc, that most enhance a message accompanied by a nude model are likely to differ from those most appropriate when no model or a clothed model is present. Care must be taken to make realistic, high quality ads without introducing confounding factors. Realization of this goal will be difficult, but it merits the additional effort.


The purpose of this paper has been to suggest possible theoretical approaches to the study of sexual stimuli in advertising and to summarize the relevant literature. Several conclusions are forthcoming from this review. First, the role of sexually-oriented advertising stimuli may be more clearly understood through the theoretical constructs discussed in this paper. It is also evident that the operation of each of these concepts is mediated by the consumer's enduring value system. The understanding of sex in competitive advertising is therefore contingent upon the consideration of personal values in the context of such theoretical constructs.

Another major conclusion stemming from this paper is the apparent opportunity for research in this area. Such research would offer practical input into the questions of advertising's role in society and the managerial uses of sexually-oriented advertising. It is imperative that any such empirical work employ stimuli designed to be realistic representations of advertising. Research that is tied to a theoretical framework and possesses adequate external validity can develop the promising area of sexually-oriented stimuli into an important aspect of communications research.


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M. Venkatesan and J. Losco, "Women in Magazine Ads: 1959-71," Journal of Advertising Research, 15(October, 1975), 49-54.

J. P. Wincze, P. Hoon and E. F. Hoon, "Sexual Arousal in Women: A Comparison of Cognitive and Physiological Responses by Continuous Measurement," Archives of Sexual Behavior, 6 (1977), 121-33.

G. L. Wise, A. L. King and J. P. Merenski, "Reactions to Sexy Ads Vary With Age," Journal of Advertising Research, 14 (August, 1974), 11-16.

P. Zimbardo, E. Ebbesen and S. Fraser, "Emotional Persuasion: Arousal State as a Distractor," unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, 1968.



R. Dale Wilson, The Pennsylvania State University (student), The Pennsylvania State University
Noreen K. Moore


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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