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Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995 Pages 735-739

UNDERSTANDING RESPONSES TO SEX APPEALS IN ADVERTISING: AN INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCE


APPROACH
Stephen M. Smith, North Georgia College
Curtis P. Haugtvedt, Ohio State University
John M. Jadrich, University of Georgia
and Mark R. Anton, University of Georgia
ABSTRACT
Although the use of partially nude models in advertising has increased in recent years (Soley and Reid 1988), how
such ads influence consumer judgments and reactions is unclear. A review of existing research suggests complex
relationships between the use of nudity in an advertisement and several measures of advertising effectiveness. In
order to begin to better understand conditions under which the persuasive effects of nudity might be enhanced or
diminished, we examined the moderating role of an individual difference factor expected to predict reactions to
advertising containing partially nude modelsCsex guilt.
Consistent with earlier predictions by Kerin, Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia (1979), recent evidence suggests that the
use of nudity in advertising is more common than ever (Soley and Reid 1988). This is despite the fact that empirical
work has produced inconsistent and sometimes negative results regarding the overall effectiveness of sexual stimuli
in advertising.
For example, a number of studies have varied the sexual content of advertisements and examined brand recall
effects. The most common finding in such studies is that nudity or sexual content actually reduces a consumer's
probability of remembering the brand (e.g., Alexander and Judd 1979; Chestnut, LaChance and Lubitz 1977;
Richmond and Hartman 1982; Steadman 1969). One explanation for such findings is that sexual stimuli draw
attention away from brand information, and this is supported by findings that sexual content actually increases
processing of ad execution factors, while undermining processing of brand information (Reid and Soley 1981;
Severn, Belch and Belch 1990).
When measures other than brand recall are used to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual stimuli in advertising, a
different picture has emerged. For example, nudity or sexual content in an ad increases consumer arousal (Belch,
Holgerson, Belch and Koppman 1982; LaTour 1990). Increased arousal may be partially responsible for consumers'
increased recognition of ads containing sexual content, when Starch scores are examined (Reid and Soley 1981). Of
course, arousal per se is not necessarily a positive outcome, and could undermine ad and brand judgments if the
arousal is negatively valenced or too extreme. Recent work by LaTour and his colleagues (LaTour 1990; LaTour,
Pitts and Snook-Luther 1990) indicates that ad-based arousal is multidimensional, with some dimensions affecting
ad evaluations in a positive manner, and some having a negative effect. In addition, arousal research indicates that
extremely high levels of arousal undermine persuasion relative to lower levels (Sanbonmatsu and Kardes 1988).
Since the arousal elicited by sexual content can apparently be a two-edged sword, it is important for advertisers to
recognize when "good" or "bad" arousal is most likely.
Some important moderators of the valence of consumer reactions to sexual content have already been identified.
Bello, Pitts and Etzel (1983) found that ads containing sexual suggestiveness were evaluated more favorably in the
context of congruent programming (i.e., a program involving sexual content) than when viewed in the context of an
incongruent, contrasting (i.e., nonsexual) program. In addition, several investigators have found that consumer
gender is an important moderator of responses to ad nudity (e.g., Belch et al. 1982; Bello et al. 1983; LaTour 1990;
LaTour and Henthorne 1993; Sciglimpaglia, Belch and Cain 1979). Specifically, it has been found that males
respond more positively than do females to female nudity, and female subjects are more favorable toward male
nudity than are male subjects. It seems reasonable to conclude that whatever arousal is elicited by viewing ads
containing same-sex nudity will be more likely to be negative arousal than the arousal elicited by opposite-sex
nudity (assuming, perhaps, a predominantly heterosexual sample). Finally, research suggests that product type is
also a significant moderator of responses to nudity. A number of investigators have concluded that nudity works
better for some products, such as alcoholic beverages or fragrances, than for others, such as a construction company

(e.g., Peterson and Kerin 1977; Richmond and Hartman 1982; Steadman 1969), perhaps because sex is a relevant
dimension of appeal for some products, but not others.
Responses to Ad Nudity: An Individual Difference Perspective
In recent years, consumer and social psychologists have begun to utilize specific individual difference variables to
examine theoretical processes. For example, work by Snyder and his colleagues (e.g., Snyder and DeBono 1985) has
employed the individual difference variable of self-monitoring to better understand attitude functions (e.g., Katz
1960; Shavitt, Lowrey and Han 1992). Likewise, work by Haugtvedt and his colleagues has employed the individual
difference variable of need for cognition in order to gain insight into processes underlying the formation of strong
attitudes (e.g., Haugtvedt and Petty 1992). In the case of both self-monitoring and need for cognition, the individual
difference variables serve to operationalize a construct in a broader theoretical framework. In a recent ACR address,
Bagozzi (1993) called for more research employing individual difference variables, citing specifically their power as
moderator variables.
Given the hypothesized importance of the role of arousal in the effectiveness of ads containing nudity, the research
presented in this paper represents our initial attempt to use a personality variable that may provide some insight into
the effects of different kinds of arousal. The only previous study attempting to use an individual difference approach
to understanding reactions to nudity in advertising is that by Sciglimpaglia, Belch and Cain (1979). In their work,
Sciglimpaglia et al. compared respondents' scores on a social values scale to their evaluations of sexual and
nonsexual ads. Sciglimpaglia et al. found that more conservative social values were moderately associated with less
favorable responses to ads containing nudity, but only among male participants. The values of female subjects bore
little relation to their evaluations of sexy advertisements.
Although personal social values should certainly be relevant to many consumers' responses to sexual advertising,
such values are perhaps too broad to afford much predictive power for specific criteria such as responses to
individual ads. One individual difference that would appear to be more directly relevant than overall social values is
an individual's level of sexual guilt. As defined and measured by Mosher (1966), sex guilt is an individual difference
in the extent to which people are comfortable with sexual matters, and more specifically, with sexual arousal. People
who are high in sex guilt (SG) will tend to feel negatively about being sexually aroused, whereas people low in sex
guilt feel positively about such arousal. Research has confirmed that differences in sex guilt are significantly related
to the positivity of subjects' reactions to sexual stimuli, with high sex guilt associated with less favorable reactions
(Kelley 1985). Thus consumers' level of sex guilt might serve to capture the likelihood of negative arousal.
In the present research, we examined the effects of subject gender and subject sex guilt on responses to ads
containing one of three forms of nudity. Some participants viewed ads containing male nudity, some saw ads
containing female nudity, and others saw ads containing both male and female nudity.
METHOD
Subjects and Design.
A total of 101 undergraduate psychology students (29 male) participated in exchange for extra credit in an
introductory psychology course. They were randomly assigned to conditions on the manipulated variable of ad
nudity. Subjects saw a target ad that contained either female nudity, male nudity, or both male and female nudity.
About three weeks prior to participating, subjects completed the sex guilt (SG) items from the Mosher Guilt
Inventory (MGI; Mosher 1966) along with several unrelated measures. Sample items from the MGI are,
"Masturbation is wrong and a sin," and "When I have sexual dreams, I attempt to repress them." Respondents are
asked to indicate their agreement with each of 48 statements on a scale ranging from 0 (not at all true for me) to 6
(extremely true for me). A median split on SG scores (a=.83) created our low and high SG groups.
Procedure.
Subjects arrived at the experiment site in groups of two to six. They were informed that the experiment was about
the use of emotional appeals in advertising. They were informed that their task was to look at some print ads and "let
us know how they make you feel, and whether or not you think the ads are any good." They were further informed
that some of the ads were designed to elicit emotional responses and some were not.
Each subject then received a bound folder containing four print ads, and a separate booklet containing four rating
sheets. They were instructed to view and rate each of the ads in order. Ratings included the following information.
First, subjects indicated their affective reactions to the ad on several 9-point scales, anchored by the following
endpoints: happyCsad; relaxedCaroused; threatenedCsafe; calmCexcited; warmCcold; positiveCnegative;
disgustedCcontented; and not tiredCtired.
The next section of the ad response sheet asked subjects to list "whatever thoughts you had while looking at the
advertisement, including favorable and unfavorable thoughts about either the ad or the brand itself." This was
intended to provide an assessment of the valence or polarity of subjects' cognitive responses.

Following completion of the thought-listing measure, subjects were asked to indicate their attitudes toward the ad on
five 9-point scales, anchored by the following endpoints: effectiveCineffective; goodCbad; relevantCirrelevant;
interestingCuninteresting; and upliftingCdepressing. Finally, subjects indicated their brand attitudes on three 9-point
scales, anchored by: goodCbad; desirableCundesirable; and usefulCuseless.
Subjects completed the same ratings for each of four, full-color print advertisements. Ads appeared in the same
sequence in all conditions. The first was an ad for a liqueur, and the target ad appeared second. Rather than attempt
to create three parallel versions of the same ad to manipulate nudity type, we selected three existing ads that met the
condition of being for the same type of product (a fragrance) and containing either female, male, or male and female
nudity. Actual ads were used to increase the realism of the study. The three versions of the target ad were thus for
three different brands of fragrance. The third and fourth ads were filler ads for an athletic shoe and a toothpaste,
respectively.
Since our sample was fairly small, and included mostly females, some analyses were not likely to be reliable.
Specifically, three-way interaction terms would be based on some extremely small cell sizes among male
participants (ranging from a high of 9 to a low of 2). As a consequence, only two-way analyses involving gender are
reported. The primary focus of the present paper is on examining the influence of sex guilt as a moderator of
responses to nudity in ads. Thus we will limit our discussion of gender effects to a brief summary of these results.
RESULTS
Affective Reactions
Subjects' responses to the eight affect scales were submitted to a principle components factor analysis with varimax
rotation. This analysis indicated a two-factor solution, with five of the measures loading primarily on the first factor,
and the other three measures loading strongly on the second factor (see Table 1 below). The items loading on the
first factor (which accounted for 43% of total variance) all appear to be related to the valence of responses, and the
items on the second factor (accounting for about 29% of total variance) are arousal intensity items. Separate factor
scores were thus created for Arousal Positivity and Arousal Intensity.
Arousal Positivity. First, a 3 (Ad Nudity: Male vs. Female vs. Both) X 2 (Subject Gender: Male vs. Female) ANOVA
was performed on the factor scores for the positivity dimension. Results indicated significant main effects of both
Nudity and Gender, as well as a significant interaction between these factors. The Nudity main effect, F (2,
94)=11.29, p<.001, reflected the fact that affective responses were more positive in response to the ad containing
both male and female nudity (M=0.76) than in response to the other two ads (Ms=0.05, -0.19 for the male and
female nudity versions, respectively). The main effect of Gender, F (1, 94)=12.81, p<.01, indicated that males had
more favorable reactions overall (M=0.48) than did females (M=-0.10). These effects were qualified by a Nudity X
Gender interaction, F (2, 94)=34.90, p<.001. The patterning of means suggested that females responded more
favorably (M=0.60) to the ad containing male nudity than did males (M=-0.59), but males were more positive
towards the ads depicting either female nudity (M=0.62) or both male and female nudity (M=1.41) than were female
subjects (Ms=-1.00, 0.11, respectively, for female and male/female nudity ads).
The same pattern emerged on virtually all of our dependent measures. Specifically, male participants had more
favorable thoughts and evaluations in response to the ads than did females when the ads contained either female
nudity or both male and female nudity. When the ads contained male nudity, female subjects had more favorable
thoughts and evaluations than did male subjects. These findings are consistent with a number of past investigations
of nudity effects in advertising (e.g., Bello et al. 1983; LaTour 1990; LaTour and Henthorne 1993). Since complete
elaboration of these data would occupy a great deal of space, and as they do not reflect the primary focus of the
research, we do not discuss them further. [These data are available upon request from the first author.]
TABLE 1
Next we performed a 3 (Nudity) X 2 (Sex Guilt: High vs. Low) ANOVA on the arousal positivity scores. The same
main effect of nudity emerged and needs no further discussion. A marginal Sex Guilt main effect, F (1, 94)=2.86,
p<.10, reflects the fact that low sex guilt (SG) participants had somewhat more favorable affective reactions to the
ads (M=0.17) than did high SG participants (M=-0.14). This was qualified by a Nudity X Sex Guilt interaction, F (2,
94)=2.89, p<.04. As can be seen in Table 2, this interaction is driven by responses to the ad containing female
nudity. High SG subjects had highly unfavorable reactions to this ad, relative to the low SG participants, F=7.92,
p<.01. High SG and low SG participants' reactions to the remaining versions of the ad did not differ significantly
(Fs<1). [Although not central to the present study, we also analyzed subjects' responses to the nonsexual filler ads.
High and low SG participants' responses to these ads did not differ significantly on any of our dependent measures,
indicating that any differences between these subjects was limited to the ads containing nudity.]
Arousal Intensity. A 3 X 2 ANOVA of the intensity dimension of subjects' arousal responses yielded indicated no
significant effects. This suggests that both low and high SG participants experienced the same degree of overall
activation in response to the ads. It is worth noting here that subjects' arousal ratings were higher in response to the

target ad than in response the nonsexual filler ads. For example, the mean rating on the relaxedCaroused item was
5.61 for the target ad, as opposed to 4.25 across the three filler ads.
Cognitive Responses
Subjects' responses on the thought-listing task were coded as either ad-related or brand-related and either positive
(pro-ad or pro-brand) or negative (anti-ad or anti-brand). An index of subjects' net ad-related elaborations was
constructed by subtracting the total number of negative ad elaborations from the total number of positive ad
elaborations. A parallel index was also created for subjects' brand elaborations.
Ad Elaborations. A 3 X 2 ANOVA on the net polarity of subjects' ad elaborations yielded a main effect of Nudity, F
(1, 96)=6.40, p<.01, as ad-related thoughts were more negative (M=-0.79) in response to the female nudity ad than
in response to the male nudity (M=0.02) or male/female nudity version (M=0.15). This effect was qualified by a
significant Nudity X Sex Guilt interaction, F (2, 96)=7.86, p<.01 (see Table 2 for means). This interaction was
attributable the fact that low SG and high SG responses differed significantly only in the female nudity condition. As
expected the high SG respondents generated more unfavorable ad elaborations than the low SG participants in this
condition, F=11.25, p<.01.
Brand Elaborations. An ANOVA performed on the net polarity of brand-related thoughts yielded no significant
effects. As evidenced in the cell means (see Table 2), there were very few elaborations that referred specifically to
the product.
Ad Attitudes
Responses to the five ad attitude measures were highly interrelated (a=.90) and hence were averaged to form a
single index. A 3 X 2 ANOVA on subjects' scores on the ad attitude index revealed several significant effects. First, a
main effect of Nudity, F (2, 95)=11.24, p<.001, reflects the lower rating of the female nudity ad (M=4.13) than the
male nudity (M=5.72) or male/female nudity ad (M=5.90). Second, a Sex Guilt main effect, F (1, 95)=8.27, p<.01,
indicated that high SG participants rated the ads less favorably (M=4.76) than did high SG participants (M=5.73).
These effects were qualified by a significant Nudity X Sex Guilt interaction, F (2, 95)=6.00, p<.01, which was again
due primarily to responses to the female nudity ad. Low SG and high SG participants gave approximately equal ad
evaluations when the ad contained either male or male/female nudity (Fs<1.50, ps>.20), but high SG participants
again were highly unfavorable towards the female-nudity version, relative to the low SG subjects, F=23.85, p<.001.
Brand Attitudes
Responses to the three brand attitude items were also highly interrelated (a=.85) and averaged to form a single
index. A 3 X 2 ANOVA on this index revealed no significant effects, although a marginal Sex Guilt effect did
emerge, F (1, 96)=2.93, p<.10. High SG participants had slightly more negative attitudes toward the brand (M=5.70)
than did low SG participants (M=6.29).
DISCUSSION
The present results are consistent with the suggestion that individual differences are important moderators of nudity
effects in advertising. First, the present data add support to the notion that gender is an important moderator of
responses to ad nudity. Consistent with numerous previous investigators (e.g., Belch et al. 1982; Bello et al. 1983;
LaTour 1990; LaTour and Henthorne 1993; Sciglimpaglia, Belch and Cain 1979), we found that males were more
receptive than females to ads containing female nudity, but females were more favorable than were males toward an
ad containing a nude male.
The present data are limited, however, by weaknesses in the experimental design. Specifically, although the use of
actual advertisements added to the experimental realism in the present study, it also added potential confounds. The
variations of nudity were confounded with brands (and as a consequence, with brand awareness, familiarity, etc.).
Other characteristics of the ads which were not held constant (e.g., sexual suggestiveness of poses) could also be
responsible for our results. However, it should also be noted that none of our participants spontaneously made a
connection between the experimental session and the pretesting session in which they completed the sex guilt
inventory.
TABLE 2
SUMMARY OF AD-BASED RESPONSES OF LOW AND HIGH SEX GUILT SUBJECTS
Theoretical Implications
A more important contribution of the present research regards the use of the individual difference measure of sex
guilt. Past research has identified important moderating variables that assist in understanding when nudity will be
effective and when it will be ineffective in advertising. In particular, it appears that nudity should be avoided in
situations where it is likely to elicit negative arousal (e.g., LaTour 1990), such as when it is used for an inappropriate
product (e.g., Richmond and Hartman 1982). Whereas past research has utilized situational variables to study nudity
effects, the present investigation identified an individual difference moderator of nudity effects. Specifically,
participants with relatively high levels on an individual difference measure of sex guilt appeared to respond quite

negatively to ads containing nudity, compared to individuals with lower levels of sexual guilt. This was especially
true when the ads contained female nudity.
Both situational and individual difference factors can be used to test theory and better predict behavior (cf.
Haugtvedt, Petty and Cacioppo 1992). Demonstrating parallel findings with both situational and individual
difference variables increases our confidence in theoretical propositions regarding the influence of nudity in
advertising. The present data shed additional light on the underlying processes leading to both positive and negative
reactions to nudity in advertising.
Moreover, our data do seem to make clear that the intensity of the arousal elicited by an ad does not necessarily
explain differences in the responses of different individuals (e.g., those high and low in sex guilt). Rather, it appears
to be the manner in which that arousal is interpreted. Past research suggests that high sex guilt individuals will
experience relatively negatively valenced arousal when exposed to sexual stimuli, relative to low sex guilt
individuals (e.g., Kelley 1985; Smith and Martin 1989), and our results appear to be consistent with such findings.
Practical Implications
On a global scale, the use of nudity in advertising has potentially harmful social consequences, characterizing people
(especially women) as sexual objects. But even at a micro level, our data imply that marketers should beware of
using nudity in advertising with the wrong people. The high sex guilt participants in our study were especially
negative in their reactions to female nudity, which is becoming more and more frequently used in ads (see Soley and
Reid 1988). Whatever positive effects such advertising may have on the thoughts and attitudes of low sex guilt
consumers, they may be counteracted or even outweighed by the negative impact these ads have on high sex guilt
consumers. It is therefore important to try to identify and avoid such consumers when using ads containing nudity.
Although perhaps all consumers will be aroused by ads containing sexual stimuli, it is important to recognize that
not all arousal is beneficial to the advertiser. The present study seems to reinforce the notion that some arousal is
good and some is bad, from a marketing perspective (see also LaTour 1990). However, no direct links were
established between arousal and actual consumer behavior in this study, and it is conceivable that the negative
reactions some consumers have to nudity in ads will not translate into changes in their consumption patterns. Future
research might identify some of the characteristics that distinguish the consumers whose negative responses to an ad
are relatively inconsequential, from those who will perhaps make a point of avoiding the advertised brand if and
when it elicits negative affective reactions.
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