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Dirty thoughts – new study says sex sells soap and not much else

Technology & Data

Dirty thoughts – new study says sex sells soap and not much else


Sex in advertising may leave consumers feeling a little dirty – a new Monash University study aims to demonstrate how casual sex in marketing prompts certain people to buy soap and toothpaste.

A research article, ‘Dirty weekends and personal hygiene products: the embodiment of casual sex in marketing’, conducted by Monash University Business School’s marketing department explores attitudes to casual sex and how they influence people’s choices, behaviours and consumption.

People who view casual sex as ‘dirty’ respond more positively to images of soap and toothpaste than those with neutral attitudes towards it, the ‘Dirty weekends and personal hygiene products: the embodiment of casual sex in marketing’ study finds.

“Our research shows that if a consumer sees a very sexualised advertisement, for example for Victoria’s Secret, it can actually make certain consumers head out and buy products such as soap,” says Dr Eugene Chan, senior marketing department lecturer. “Consumers’ physical experiences can really shape their choices and judgment.”


Republicans want toothpaste after thinking about casual sex

In one test, participants were first asked their political preference between the US Republican and Democrat parties. They were then assigned one of three conditions: casual sex, love and a control. Those assigned ‘casual sex’ were instructed to visualise having casual sex with someone they are attracted to but do not love. ‘Love’ participants were instructed to visualise a long walk with a romantic partner. The control participants were simply asked to write down what they did the day before. The participants were then shown an image of a tube of Colgate toothpaste and asked to rate how much they liked it on a scale of 1: ‘not at all’ to 9: ‘very much.’ For Republican participants assigned the casual sex condition, the mean ‘like’ score was 7.28 compared to the Democrat score of 6.00.

The participants were then asked to answer a series of questions beginning with ‘I feel…’. Two target items in the randomised prompts were ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’. Those in the casual sex condition felt the dirtiest. “There was no difference in political ideology,” says the study. “Imagining having casual sex prompted participants to feel physically dirtier.”

Dr Chan used data from the USA (hence Democrat versus Republican voters) using Amazon Mechanical Turk, however, he says he believes the study is also relevant to Australia. “The religious right in Australia, with their opposition to same-sex marriage, for example, one would expect that these people would hold more conservative views towards the topic of casual sex,” he says.


Religious people want soap and a shower after thinking about casual sex

A similar test was conducted, this time first asking the participants to identify themselves as religious or non-religious. They were then shown an image of a Dove bar of soap, and asked to rate their desire to take a shower. Again, participants on the more conservative end liked the soap more than their counterparts and also had a stronger desire to take a shower after thinking about casual sex.


It doesn’t extend to other products

A final test was conducted, this time showing generic face scrub, then highlighter pens as opposed to soap or toothpaste. Instead of ranking how much they liked the items, they were asked to choose how much they’d pay for them. The results for this test were not consistent with the others – participants told to think about casual sex did not favour the products. It seems the desire for soap, toothpaste and a shower was for little more than to physically remove dirt from one’s person.

“In three studies, we obtain evidence that everyday sayings associating casual sex with contamination, impurity or dirt can be embodied – in that reminders of casual sex can lead one to physically feel dirtier, motivating them to seek out consumer products that would help them physically cleanse themselves,” says Dr Chan.


Hot or not?

The study is an interesting one and offers insight into how mental cues can affect our preferences. A more suitable conclusion, though, than ‘casual sex in marketing prompts people to buy hygiene products’ to derive from the study could merely be ‘thinking about casual sex makes conservative people feel dirty.’ To more usefully determine casual sex in marketing’s influence on consumers, a broader study that actually exposed participants to some advertising or marketing material that included themes of casual sex, may be favourable, as opposed to merely asking them to think about it.

Dr Chan says the study does have broader implications for advertisers, who may be sending ineffective messages if they use overly sexualised content. “If you are an advertiser who is using sexualised images to sell perfume, what we have found is that these images may actually lead people to buy different items that are intended – soap rather than perfume,” he says in a Monash blog post.

When approached for comment, Dr Chan told Marketing. “I did not want to restrict myself to just ‘advertising’ or ‘TV shows’ contexts, so I deliberately asked my participants to think or visualise having a one-night encounter (or not), as a more ‘general’ approach to see how such thoughts or visualisations could impact their personal hygiene product purchase behaviours.”

So why do thoughts of casual sex lead some to feel physically dirty? It has a lot to do with the phenomenon of ’embodied cognition’, says Dr Chan, “which suggests that abstract ideas or notions (casual sex, for example) can lead to concrete physical sensations (like feeling dirty).”


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Image credit auremar © 123RF


Ben Ice

Ben Ice was MarketingMag editor from August 2017 - February 2020

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