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Project Runway and Sex in Advertising

The famously-highbrow people at Lifetime have just released a new ad for the long-running reality show “Project Runway,” in which 20 fashion designers compete to win, among other goodies, $100,000 to start their own fashion line. Apparently believing that the best way to promote a show about clothing is to photograph the show’s host wearing almost none of it, the cable channel has unveiled a sultry new ad in which supermodel Heidi Klum flashes a seductive grin, strategically positioning her left arm and wearing nothing but a pink tie. If you’re looking closely, you might notice that the ad says “Project Runway: Thursdays at 9 PM” in the top right-hand corner. (Really, the thing could be a basic template for all kinds of advertisements; you could just as easily swap out the show’s airtime for a brand of cheap domestic beer, and voila! Perfect new ad.) A simple question follows, then: How well does sexualized advertising actually work?

You might be tempted to trot out the old adage “sex sells” as a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but a 2008 paper by SUNY Albany’s Sanjay Putrevu shows that the answer is a little more nuanced. Specifically, Putrevu found that “low-involvement” consumers—those who do not perceive the advertised product as particularly relevant to their needs or interests—are more likely to respond positively to sexual advertising. In contrast, consumers who feel the product is relevant to their lives are likely to respond to more direct appeals about the product itself, rather than peripheral sexual appeals. Furthermore, consumers with a low “need for cognition”—those who do not enjoy or engage in complex thinking, or who are more susceptible to information overload—are more likely to respond to sexual appeals.

These answers may seem intuitive enough, but, if you found yourself answering the initial question with the follow-up “Are we talking about men or women?”… you’d be on the right track. The third factor Putrevu studied was the level of “fit,” or how relevant sexuality was to the product being advertised. As it turns out, women don’t mind strong fits: If the product has a sexual angle, a sexual advertisement can be effective. But women do react negatively when a non-sexual product is irrelevantly sexualized for advertising purposes. Men, on the other hand, tend not to care: They respond positively to sexual appeals whether the product in question has anything to do with sex or not. (In other news, water is wet.)

Petrevu’s study suggests that, even if the links between a fashion reality show hosted by a supermodel and sexual advertising appeals weren’t logical enough, the show’s suggestive ad campaign would still draw male viewers. In light of that fact, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that so many viewers of “Project Runway” are men.