Being an advertiser is hard. On one hand, sex sells (and sells and sells). On the other hand, women sometimes take offense at lubricious ads, and then won’t buy your product, or let their boyfriends buy it, and before you know it there’s a Twitter campaign against your company and oh lord. Yet a new study in the journal Psychological Science shines a light on when it’s OK to objectify the female body in the name of Mammon. According to researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs, women find erotically charged ads less distasteful when they promote very expensive items. We like our objectification classed up, thank you.
In one experiment, Vohs and her colleagues showed 87 male and female undergraduates 20-second commercials for women’s watches. Half the students were presented with ads featuring “majestic snowcapped mountains,” while the other half saw ads drenched in “explicit sexual imagery.” The prices of the watches varied randomly: either $1250 (luxury condition) or $10 (bargain condition). When the researchers took participants’ emotional temperature after viewing the sexy clips, they found that women in the bargain condition felt “more upset emotionally” than women in the luxury condition. Women who saw sexual images paired with cheap watches also reported disliking the ads, while those who got mountains or sex-plus-extravagance reacted more neutrally. (In all conditions, the men were as the mountains: unfazed.)
The researchers explain their findings by way of sexual economics theory, which treats the heterosexual dating pool as a marketplace and sex as a commodity. The story goes that since women sell sex to men in exchange for resources—including hard-to-quantify ones like attention—they want the world to perceive their eroticized bodies as “rare and precious.” Ads that link female sexuality to exclusive, high-value goods help; ads that equate a woman’s erotic charms to a cheapo Casio timepiece obviously do not. “Using sexual images to promote an inexpensive product fosters undesirable associations between sex and cheapness, commonness, or low value, which is antithetical to women’s preferences about how sex should be understood,” the authors write.
Women do not want to be bargain bin watches. They want to be Ferraris and Christian Dior boots! Girl power! Just kidding: Women have or withhold sex for a variety of reasons, just like men, and objectification as an extremely pricey object is still objectification. On that note, one thing that struck me about this study was the way the female college students identified more with the sexy silhouettes in the ads than with the hypothetical consumer. It didn’t matter that the commercials were shilling women’s watches: These undergrads saw themselves as posing bodies, not as customers lured in by a beautiful model. (Otherwise, why would they have been offended?) To me this underscores just how profoundly women are affected by standards they see in advertising and media, just how automatic it is to project ourselves onto the billboards, to imagine ourselves in that weird, Photoshopped, hypersexualized space. As I mentioned, male students viewing the explicit ads weren’t troubled at all, even when the spots incorporated men—was this because they correctly perceived themselves as audience, not entertainment? Buyers, not sellers?
One other note on these findings: The idea that women want sex to occur only in extraordinary circumstances, when the stars align and the price is right, seems pretty restrictive, and also runs counter to all those hook-up culture stories we’ve all been reading. Casual flings have their own downsides, but the best part is surely the realization that sex needn’t be “rare and precious,” only fun and safe.