Which sells better sex or humour?

This article examines the changing shifts in advertising and contrasts two of the most fundamental advertising techniques – sex and humour.

Sex and humour are considered by many to be the most fundamental advertising techniques in the modern advertiser’s repertoire. The phrase “sex sells” has been widely held to be an irrefutable truism in the marketing world for many decades. However humour has also become increasingly common place in many successful advertising campaigns and can be seen to be challenging many of the established advertising preconceptions. In this piece we are going to look at this new divide and try to determine which is the more powerful selling technique.

We’ll begin with sex as this is the most dominant “wisdom” of the day. Sex sells for a number of reasons. Most importantly it targets one of the key desires of people – especially those in the age range 18-30, who constitute the largest commercial demographic. The desire to procreate is considered by many to be the driving force of much human activity and therefore it exercises considerable sway over audiences. This is really the key thing that “sex” advertising is trying to tap into. The most common technique used is the either subtle or blatant implication of “buy this product and you will get the girl/boy/man/woman of your dreams.” Of course the reality of the commercials is often more complex and subtle but this still forms the base level of emotional trigger that is being played upon. Now we need to judge the effectiveness of this method of advertising. The initial advantage is of course that your commercial plays to a non-selective desire of almost all people. This means you are potentially targeting the largest possible consumer base for your product. The secondary advantage is that many people associate beauty with success which creates positive connotations for your product. Combined these are the best reasons why sex sells. However, we also need to pay attention to the negative aspects of sex marketing. Firstly, many consumers are now increasingly savvy to these advertising techniques and many consider these kinds of commercials unrealistic. This can be potentially alienating to large parts of your target demographics. Finally the key problem in sexually orientated advertising is that, though it targets broad needs of people, actual sexuality is a personal and not a broad experience – making highly targeted advertising problematic.

Contrariwise humour in advertising has a very different set of positive benefits. Initially the most evident benefit is being able to create positive associations on any product or service. Making people laugh makes them feel positively towards your company and therefore more likely to become customers. Secondly humorous commercials have the ability to go viral much more readily than other advertising techniques. People will talk about a funny commercial and go out of their way to watch it. This spreads your message and increases your brand exposure. Finally, humour can be used cleverly to disguise standard advertising techniques (including “sex sells”) whilst still playing on the standard repertoire of emotional and desire based triggers.

However of course there are disadvantages to this approach. The most common problem is striking the right balance between humour and commercial without alienating your key demographics. Humour can be a very personal thing and advertisers must make sure the humour of the commercial matches the humour of the intended demographic. If the balance is handled correctly though a funny commercial is much more effective at selling and much better at growing a brand. With all approaches to marketing there are of course potential pitfalls; taking the care to overcome them is therefore the highest priority.

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