Sex sells, we all know that. Marketing strategists have been using sexually arousing images and messages in advertisements for over decades, most likely having found its roots on tobacco packages in 1885. Food ads often contain sexual elements. Frequently, these ads promote fast foods, such as the ad by Burger King in 2014, but sometimes also healthy products such as the ad for Coca Cola’s new milk Fairlife (2014). Sexual elements are used in advertisements because they are believed to catch our attention and make us feel positive towards the advertised brand. More importantly, they increase our arousal and thereby motivate us to obtain the advertised product (Reichter, 2002).
Arousing advertisements induce us to consume more
This does not mean that viewing a sexually tinted advertisement makes us hit on the first person we come across on the street. In fact, neurological findings suggest that our brain processes different rewarding objects in a similar manner. Arousal can thus make us seek rewards in more than one area, regardless of the source of the arousal. Many studies provide evidence that sexual arousal, hunger or money deprivation can guide behavior to obtain rewards in any of these areas (Wyer & Xu, 2010). For instance, Festjens, Bruyneel, and Dewitte (2013) showed that touching men’s boxer shorts made females more willing to risk money to obtain chocolates and money.
Sexual stimuli can make you feel sexy, hungry and greedy. It is thus not surprising that advertisers use arousing images to promote their products. The use of sex in advertisements is often criticized as portraying women in a sexist manner. However, what is overlooked is that, perhaps not sex, but money is the factor that has most influence on human consumption behavior.
How money motivates behavior
Consumption goals can even be activated indirectly. For instance, Chen and Lurie (2012) investigated whether the state of a product can trigger people towards seeking rewards. They presented participants an image showing either a full or an empty iPhone battery. The participants were then asked to answer some unrelated questions about the iPhone’s design. After answering these questions they were offered a participant bonus of either money or cookies. They had to indicate how much of the bonus they would like to keep to themselves, and how much of it they would share with another participant. When participants had seen a picture of a low iPhone battery, their behavior was consistent with resource scarcity: they took more money and cookies for themselves.
Does money influence consumption?
However, it is not yet exactly clear how money primes influence consumer behavior. Some psychological studies actually report contradicting findings, namely: that thinking of money leads to healthier and money-saving decisions. For instance, Tong, Zheng, and Zhao (2013) found that when people were primed with money, they more often chose a utilitarian product over a hedonic product (e.g. batteries over chocolate cake). A possible reason for this discrepancy is that money can trigger both positive and negative cognitions. If money makes us think about wealth or its buying capacity, it can trigger feelings of autonomy, confidence and strength and incite us to spend more money. However, if it activates thoughts related to a lack of money or our unpaid bills, it can trigger feelings such as weakness and distress, and in fact decrease our consumption.