Does sex sell beer?


I don’t watch much broadcast TV, but when I do, I pay a distracting amount of attention to the ads (which is the main reason I don’t watch it much). I think advertisers are extremely good at grabbing your attention quickly, and they’ve really mastered an effective visual language. But what is it good at, beyond compelling the eye to follow it? I confess, if a beer commercial features bikini-clad women bouncing on the screen, my eye is irresistibly drawn to it, and it takes some focus to tear away.

But I don’t think I buy beer based on the attire of their bikini models. Most often, I don’t even know what brand of beer they’re trying to sell with that beach scene, so it would be hard for it to influence me in a specific direction. So here’s a paper that asks about the actual effectiveness of those ads.

Do Sex and Violence Sell? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Sexual and Violent Media and Ad Content on Memory, Attitudes, and Buying Intentions.
Lull, Robert B.; Bushman, Brad J.
Psychological Bulletin, Jul 20 , 2015.

It is commonly assumed that sex and violence sell. However, we predicted that sex and violence would have the opposite effect. We based our predictions on the evolution and emotional arousal theoretical framework, which states that people are evolutionarily predisposed to attend to emotionally arousing cues such as sex and violence. Thus, sexual and violent cues demand more cognitive resources than nonsexual and nonviolent cues. Using this framework, we meta-analyzed the effects of sexual media, violent media, sexual ads, and violent ads on the advertising outcomes of brand memory, brand attitudes, and buying intentions. The meta-analysis included 53 experiments involving 8,489 participants. Analyses found that brands advertised in violent media content were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent, nonsexual media. Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonviolent, nonsexual ads. There were no significant effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions. There were no significant effects of sexual or violent ads on memory or buying intentions. As intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased. When media content and ad content were congruent (e.g., violent ad in a violent program), memory improved and buying intentions increased. Violence and sex never helped and often hurt ad effectiveness. These results support the evolution and emotional arousal framework. Thus, advertisers should consider the effects of media content, ad content, content intensity, and congruity to design and place more effective ads.

First, I have to say…there is no freakin’ evolution in this paper. Psychologists, please stop this: you may have speculated about an evolutionary rationale for your hypothesis, but if you aren’t testing that rationale directly, you are not doing an evolutionary study. OK? You really don’t have to justify a study of recent American advertising with evolution to make it interesting.

But otherwise, this jibes with my experience. Jiggling women or loud race cars or explosions might get my attention, but they don’t seem to tell my brain “You should buy that”.

I wonder if another parameter would be worth assessing: humor. Most of the ads jumping through hoops to capture my attention now seem to be weird humorous things — especially the ubiquitous insurance commercials. But they never seem to be able to help me tell the difference between one and insurance company and another.

I also wonder if centering the commercial on the product is more effective. I remember in my youth that there were these Rainier beer commercials that were all about making the product part of the humor: Pacific Northwesterners of a certain age will remember the wild Rainiers, giant bottles of Rainier beer with legs stampeding through local scenery.

I also remember all my friends buying cases of Rainier even though it’s awful watery beer. So I can’t totally deny the effectiveness of advertising.


  1. madtom1999 says

    Its been a while since I’ve been to the US but I would hazard a guess that the adverts are done in co-operation with the networks to provide some titillation to overcome the complete lack of content in most of the programs.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    I loved those Rainier commercials.
    The only time I drank Rainier was during a beer-strike, when it was smuggled into Alberta.

  3. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    I dunno, ever since I discovered internet porn, tantalizing imagery in ads or slightly suggestive pictures of celebrities ceased to make any sense to me.

  4. johnmarley says

    During my brief stint on Whidbey Island in 1994, Rainier beer was running an ad campaign of funny takes on fairy-tales that incorporated Rainier Beer. Still never bought it, though.

  5. congenital cynic says

    I recall seeing a series of Bud Light commercials on YouTube a few years back. They were funny, but not about to make me buy that pathetic beer. If the actors were naked it wouldn’t influence my beer purchases. In fact, since I drink mostly local craft beer and imports from Europe, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for any of the beer I usually drink. It’s all about the taste, not the cleavage they use to pedal it.

  6. says

    But they never seem to be able to help me tell the difference between one and insurance company and another.

    Because there usually isn’t one. Same goes for cars, cell phones, breakfast cereal, and dishwashing soap. They can’t talk about the actual qualities of their product because if they did, it would be apparent that whatever differences actually exist are miniscule and usually a matter of personal taste, rather than essential functionality.

  7. garnetstar says

    The first rule that advertisers should apply, but usually don’t, is: don’t make the ad images so notable that the viewer doesn’t remember, or even learn, the name of the product.

    Best example: the cannibal chickens ad in the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s mesmerizing to watch, truly an artful piece of filmaking with scary emotional impact. Unfortunately, I cannot remember, because I never even noticed, the name of the candidate.

    What candidate would ever be interesting enough to compete with what was essentially a short re-make of The Birds?

  8. says

    Damn, PZ, can’t you keep your mouth shut for one minute?! Here we all are, trying to pretend half-naked women are an effective advertising tactic, just so the ads we’re stuck with will be at least a little bit pleasant to watch — and here you come to blow it all.

    Now the advertizers will drop all those half-naked women from their ads, and we’ll all be stuck with TV commercials that will be even less fun to watch than they already are. Damned atheist killjoys…

  9. Mobius says

    Loved the Rainier Beer commercials when I was in Idaho in the Air Force. Humorous and very catchy. There was also Olympia Beer, brewed with water from artesian wells and we had to thank all the little Artesians for making the beer for us.

    What really made these memorable was they were part of a campaign, with many commercials following the same theme…somewhat like the Geico gekko.

    I can recall several very funny one-off commercials for beer. The ads were hilarious, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what brand they were promoting.

  10. cswella says

    It’s always enjoyment of the women, followed by the disappointment that they’re no longer on-screen or they’re covered up by some stupid brand name. It’s why I’m always inexplicably sad when I see the Budweiser logo.

  11. says

    I find that beer ads usually make me want a beer, but it is never the one they are advertising. Bud Light commercial? Yeah, I could go for a Laguntias IPA.

    I was reading an interesting article from a former programmer over at Lycos (early pre-google search engine). His team had discovered, by running a eye-tracking experiment, that people looking a search results actually did not look at flashy ads. If they made the ads text-only, making them harder to differentiate from the search results, people actually looked at them. Unfortunate (for Lycos’ sake) management and the advertisers refused to make the change.

    Not long after, Google hit the scene. They apparently had figured this out as well.


  12. Stephen Wilson says

    Humor, vice sex, made me try a beer. Cases in point are the Fosters commercials I saw via a British satellite TV service in Germany, which I describe to the best of my recollection:

    1. Beautiful, young woman, dressed in a white, lacey gown picks up a toad. She wishes out loud, “If I give you a kiss, you’ll turn into a handsome sheep shearer!” She kisses the toad and, “POOF!”, there is a brawny, blond sheep shearer, shirtless in bibbed overalls. She excitedly tells him, “If you give ME a kiss, you can have whatever you want!” He gives her a kiss and, “POOF!”…she’s turned into a cold, frosty Fosters. Big smiles from the sheep shearer!

    2. A couple are beneath sheets after obviously having quite a tumble. She slithers off to the bathroom. Meanwhile he sees a guitar, and a nightstand photo of another man playing it with the girl he just shagged. We see several pictures of this other man and the just-shagged girl around the room. She calls from the bathroom, “I think there’s some beer in the fridge!” He goes to the kitchen and the fridge is totally bare save for a single Fosters – apparently the last one – sitting prominently on the main shelf inside it. He smiles, reaches for it, but then pulls back, saying, “Nah…E’s my best mate!”

  13. DyNama says

    There’s a long-term debate about how well advertising works. It certainly does introduce new products well, and it does create name recognition for brands, but is one more ad for Ranier Beer or Pepsi actually going to sell any more of the product? We are unlikely to have forgotten about those brands when it’s time to go shopping; a Ranier ad might remind us to go get beer but it will not convince us to buy a brand we already know we don’t like. But that ad of the supermodel eating a deluxe hamburger would have got me to try that brand if there were any of those franchises around here.

    It may be sacrilegious at this blog but I (an atheist for 43 years) think religion and ethnicity are not the worst ideas of all time, they are 2nd and 3rd to marketing, which is institutionalized lying. I actually pay attention to ads and enjoy recognizing the deceptive language, manipulative ideas, and illogical and unscientific statements. I do love sexy ads, and cant help picturing in my head the x-rated version!

  14. frog says

    I find myself susceptible to emotional-but-inspiring ads (as long as the inspiration is human/secular, not religiony).

    The South African ad for Bell’s whiskey where the father learns to read so he can read his son’s book? SLAYS ME. I remember the name of the whiskey, and I think if I ever wanted to drink whiskey, I would at least give Bell’s a try. Because that ad is so wonderful.

  15. leerudolph says

    It has always seemed evident to me that advertising agencies are very, very effective at selling their services to advertisers; and that that’s all they need to do, to stay in their lucrative business. Selling the advertisers’ products or services is a secondary goal at best.

  16. magistramarla says

    I’ve been enjoying the ad for Tylenol that says “It’s not who you love, it’s how you love.” The couples and families featured in the ad are simply beautiful. Since I can’t take NSAIDs right now, I’m using Tylenol quite often, and I’m very happy to be giving them some business.
    There is a travel company that has a very similar ad lately. I love that ad, too.

  17. Bob Dowling says

    When advertising companies put these adverts together who is their customer?

    Chances are, it’s a middle-aged or older white man who enjoys watching young white breasts and remembers his youth fondly. He probably also enjoys wish-fulfillment action movies.

    The question “what will this do in the mind of the viewer?” is not one he asks.

  18. says

    I don’t know what the current rules are in the UK, but for a very long time, British advertisers were not allowed to use sex overtly to sell alcoholic beverages — in particular, the type of ads where if you got the drink, you got the girl.

    On the upside, British TV ads for beer were typically a lot more creative and humorous than the American TV ads. When I first came to the US, I couldn’t believe how bad most of them were. Even today, the humor in US beer ads seems to be mostly “jock humor” which I’ve always found to be lame.

    A famous British Heineken ad from the 1980s:

  19. says

    Chances are, it’s a middle-aged or older white man who enjoys watching young white breasts and remembers his youth fondly. He probably also enjoys wish-fulfillment action movies.

    The OP notwithstanding, given the amount of money major corporations pour into market research these days, I find that very hard to believe.

  20. yazikus says

    When I think of beer advertising I think of two kinds, the TV kind that is selling a brand and has the scantily clad people, etc. or the bar beer ads, where a specific location is advertising a certain brand of beer. The second kind amuses me to no end because almost without fail the first thing they advertise is the temperature of the beer. COLD! So in the end, the bars are just competing for who has the coldest fridge. And after a number of conversations with people, that really does bring people in the doors. (The TV beer ads do nothing for me. Yogurt ads are more exciting.)

    For me personally, I’m a sucker for cool bottle/packaging labeling & design. I also call Rainier ‘ron-yay’.

  21. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    What about an ad for a sperm bank featuring scantily clad beefcake guys?

    I figure sex sells sex cells…

  22. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    @garnetstar #8:

    The first rule that advertisers should apply, but usually don’t, is: don’t make the ad images so notable that the viewer doesn’t remember, or even learn, the name of the product.

    Best example: the cannibal chickens ad in the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s mesmerizing to watch, truly an artful piece of filmaking with scary emotional impact. Unfortunately, I cannot remember, because I never even noticed, the name of the candidate.

    There are some hilarious political ads from the last few years, especially since YouTube started and these oddball candidates running in state and local elections post absurd ads that the whole world can see (and hopefully parody). There was a candidate for the US Senate (or the House, or was already serving, I can’t remember what the point was) shooting a copy of the ACA with a hunting rifle; that castrating hogs candidate from last year; Mitch McConnell’s creepy smiling ad (with absolutely no words spoken the entire time); and all those hilarious PAC ads that continue to be released.

    “Gathering Storm” was an anti-gay marriage ad from NOM a few years ago that looked utterly ridiculous in its use of a flashing thunderstorm background to symbolize the coming “storm” of legalized same sex marriage. Also, a group called Catholic Vote released a tremendously patronizing black and white ad called “Not Alone” in response to last month’s Supreme Court decision, where the actors look tearfully into the camera and reveal how the viewer is “not alone” in being against gay marriage.

    They’re certainly memorable, but not for any of the reasons I’m guessing the creators had in mind. And if they have turned off comments or have a huge imbalance of downvotes (right now, “Not Alone” has about 50k downvotes versus about 3600 upvotes), it’s a good sign their message may have missed its mark.

  23. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    I’ve studied advertising for a number of years, read a number of studies, and my conclusion is that advertising works by frequency, prominence, and location.

    First, one of the golden rules of advertising is that a consumer must be exposed to a product in an ad an average of *16* times before a buying decision will be made. That’s why you see the same friggin’ ad 10 times or so during one of your favourite old movies when it’s shown on a commercial channel. Frequency is irritating as hell, but it works.

    Second, prominence. Is the ad BIG enough, in its particular medium, to overshadow other ads in that medium?That’s why billboards still work — they’re BIG. The same for a commercial aired during the Super Bowl. That’s why the rates are so high.

    Third, location — is the ad located when/where the consumer can give in to their momentary desire for the product. That’s why bars often have an ad for a particular beer or liquor in their window. And that’s why The Shopping Channel is a license to print money.

    All this is based on the observation that in today’s ad-saturated society, most of us are exposed up to 10K ad-stimulus per day. Think of it — when you drive down the street, or ride the bus, every business sign you see on the street is contemplated and edited by your brain on a subconscious level — until that one time you’re grouchy, leaving work late, you’re hungry, and you see the KFC sign and say, “Fuck it! I want some salt ‘n grease!” That’s why there are so MANY ads everywhere nowadays, several times a day your brain is going to take a breath in its editing and rejection of all the ads you are surrounded by and make a decision. Every advertiser hoping their ad will be in front of your eyes when the brain does that; and the best way to maximize the chance of that is to MULTIPLE ads in a PROMINENT place where the consumer had the spontaneous OPPORTUNITY to buy.

    And that’s why so many people find “nature” — camping, walking, and hikes — so relaxing; because the brain can rest from having to make 10K decisions a day not to buy (and 3 or 4 decision to buy).

  24. latveriandiplomat says

    Peggy Olson: Sex sells.
    Don Draper: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.

    I like this discussion, it’s still cynical, but it’s a smart sort of cynicism

  25. redwood says

    I remember reading many years ago the sex didn’t work in advertising because people (men?) remembered the ad but not the product. Rather, scenes of nature seemed to do very well in getting people to remember a product. I guess the idea is to put the watcher in a calm, receptive mood, not an aggressive/sexual one.

  26. Doug Little says

    If you are seeing a beer commercial its probably a good idea to steer clear of the beer that is being advertised. There will be plenty of local breweries in your area that will have infinitely better beer with no chance, or will for that matter, of ever advertising during prime time.

  27. says

    Considering Adam Sandler is in it, I’m surprised I never found it homophobic but a terrific send-up of these type of ads – the Schmitt’s Gay commercial spoof.

    Maybe Sandler didn’t write it, or perhaps someone else on the show found a way to reign in his worst gay panic inclinations…

  28. DyNama says

    It’s frequently told in advertising circles about the animated spokesthing Speedy AlkaSeltzer, that at one point he was the most popular cartoon figure on tv, yet Alka Seltzer reported no increase in sales, so he was speedily discontinued. Now he only shows up in retro commercials.

  29. keiththompson says

    The commercials for Dyson vacuum cleaners are unusual and good. They’re just someone (usually James Dyson himself) talking about the qualities that make the vacuum cleaner better than others, with some video and diagrams of the vacuum cleaner in use. That’s all.

    I’m not in the market for a vacuum cleaner, and I don’t really know that Dyson makes better ones than anyone else, but the commercials are persuasive.

  30. Pierce R. Butler says

    Years ago, I reached a conclusion so far unchallenged by observed facts:

    The more something is advertised, the less you actually need it.

  31. robro says

    I thought the reason my friends and I bought Rainer beer in the early 1980s was because it was cheap. None of us spent much time watching TV, so it probably wasn’t the ads.

  32. Cuttlefish says

    What bothers me is, they don’t even pretend to measure whether it *actually* changes one’s beer-buying. Just the “intent” to buy beer.

    If intentions were all that are needed to determine behavior, we’d have a lot fewer smokers, and I’d be far more regular in my running.

    I do not care if viewers do or do not intend to buy beer. Nor do advertisers. They care if people actually do buy beer. That would have been a nice thing to study.

  33. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    I still vividly remember a lot of the Rainier Beer commercials from when I was a kid- probably not a good thing, kids and all, but they were memorable. The one that has stuck with me the most and always comes to mind is this one- simple and no doubt what the product was it sold. Motorcycle

  34. Lofty says

    Clearly advertising works on some people, especially children. My niece used to sing every annoying little advertising jingle. She informed me that Subway was Fresh, because the advert informed her so. She was quite upset when I informed her that there were lashings of transport, refrigeration and processing between the original food and the ingredients in the display cabinet. I hope that my snarky comments on people who get sucked in by advertising helped her in her maturing.

  35. Chaos Engineer says

    But they never seem to be able to help me tell the difference between one and insurance company and another.

    I’ve never had that problem. The ad with the cartoon gecko is Geico, the one with the annoyingly enthusiastic woman is Progressive, and the forgettable one is either Allstate or Prudential. Liberty Mutual has that horrible, horrible commercial with the woman who wrecks “Brad” (her car) but then says she goes into her “happy dance” when she finds out that the insurance will cover it. Commercial scriptwriter, wrecking your car is a huge inconvenience, even if no one is hurt and even if your insurance covers it. Do you even *own* a car? Grrr!

    Anyway, I’ve got Allstate Insurance, because that’s what I’ve had for the past 30 years, because that’s what my parents suggested when I came of age and needed to buy my own car insurance. I guess I should probably shop around, but I figure that once you factor out all the gimmicks, the major companies all give you more-or-less the same rates for the same coverage.

  36. qwints says

    Is there good evidence that self-reported “brand memory, brand attitudes, and buying intentions” predict consumer behavior?

  37. amandajane5 says

    Heh, I’m reminded of an ad – it was a billboard, that I saw every morning on the BART on my way from SF to Oakland, they were sawing a hole in a wooden floor, so as to dispose of the word “thirst.” It was maybe canned iced tea? The point being that their beverage product was a thirst quencher, get rid of that thirst! Because it can only be done by this specific lemon-flavored-iced-tea-resembling beverage. Logic!

  38. tungsten says

    But beer definitely sells sex… the brothel next to the bar definitely gets busier after plenty of beer has been drunk.

  39. randay says

    # 4 Saganite. Some years ago when streaming videos became relatively good quality, I watched more than a bit of porn. Now when it is even more available and “high” quality, I hardly ever watch it all. It is just rather boring.

  40. wcorvi says

    I think the problem here is, PZ and commenters are not typical consumers. If you watch commercial TV only occasionally, you miss the point of the ads. The first order of business is to get the audience to watch – over and over. The second is to get the brand name mentioned – over and over. Remember the grating song, the words of which were Viva-la-Viva-la- repeated for a minute? With only two notes? Of COURSE you do.

    The reason lawn signs for politicians work is name-recognition. Ultimately, even child-molesters can get elected because people remember their names. Why do you think Donald Trump is the leading candidate?

  41. chigau (違う) says

    Sexy ads must work.
    Nothing else can explain the popularity of Axe grooming products.

  42. anteprepro says

    chigau: No, I can explain the popularity Axe.

    1. Excellent Manly Brand Name.
    2. Sleek Manly Black Package. (This one doubles as a porn title)
    3. Quick Convenient Alternative To Showering.
    4. Cheaper Than Traditional Manfumes.
    5. Resulting Stench Reminds One of Sexy Sexy Sweat
    6. Smell Is Only Slightly Worse Than Car Air Freshener.
    7. Choking on a True Man’s Smell Aura Ensures Long-term Memory

    Each one of those could be the title of a separate scientific article. Get on it, scientists.

    (Full Disclosure: I have actually used Axe before, and I have a cheap knockoff of it currently, so some of this might be self-deprecating. A little.)

  43. chigau (違う) says

    We got a free sample of an Axe whatever in the mail.
    I poured it down the sink.
    Two days ago.
    I can still smell it.

    A cheap knockoff of Axe??!‽?

  44. cjcolucci says

    For years I have thought that most beer advertising sells the concept of beer and does that very well, but does a lousy job of selling a particular beer. As a result, most beer advertising ends up selling Budweiser.

  45. anteprepro says

    chigau, should have tried the toilet. And yes, dollar store item. I think I have used it once. Don’t remember how long ago it has been around. I should probably throw it out already.