When Sex Doesn't Sell

Jill Richmond

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In a digital world where marketers are laser focused on easy measureable clicks they tend to ignore the real impact of the emotional sentiment of those ads. A long overdue whitepaper published by Fem Inc., a company founded by an all female technology team from Google and Caltech entitled "Take Back The Ad" and funded by Google's Trust & Safety Team was recently released examining the link between short term exposure to sexualized imagery in digital advertisements and some well-established indicators of long-term outcomes, including sexism (hostile and benevolent); self-objectification among women, specifically their beliefs around self-worth - whether they value themselves based on what they can do versus how they look; and basic emotional responses to the ads including irritation and desire to purchase the advertised product as well as subconscious beliefs about women.

Much of the existing research on sexualization in advertising still is deeply related to print and not digital media. But with online advertising growing 20% according to the IAB between 2014-2015 there is a dearth of research connecting the dots around click obsessed metrics and real behavior and the disconnect of purchasing behavior.

The research uncovered fascinating findings that bring some oft-held beliefs under scrutiny, primarily that sexualized ads tended to provoke significant negative emotional responses from female users - otherwise known as the "negative halo effect," and and a decreased desire to purchase the advertised product and that even very short-term exposure had a measurable effect on sexism in male users.

The most important findings indicate that online advertisements are showing content that in overt cases like hyper-sexualization, leads to negative publicity and decreased long-term effectiveness of the advertisement itself. While clicks are the primary driver and measure of engagement, those clicks are telling an incomplete story. Inherently the short-term nature misses critical information on longer term effects for brand value.

Currently it is not obvious if the major online advertising platforms (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook) have specific policies on gender representation or sexualization in their products or advertisements (except when included under hate and violence) though Google has a policy against "imposing negativity in personalized advertising," which includes "negativity related to physical attributes or social interactions and Facebook does mention under "Shock Value" that "ads may not be shocking, sensational or disrespectful "which, it could be argued, gender objectification and sexualization are, although given their common usage it is unlikely that they are generally seen as such.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced an update to its news feed algorithm that penalizes links to web pages that it considers of low quality. Rolling out "over the coming months," per Facebook, the update will curtail the reach of organic posts containing these links and block ads linking to these pages from being approved in the first place.

The update will apply to ads running across Facebook, Instagram and Facebook's Audience Network ad network and to organic posts on Facebook. While Facebook is specifically targeting pages that do not feature much original content but carry a lot of ads, particularly the annoying, offensive types like pop-ups and sexualized image click-bait, it certainly is a move in the right direction. Facebook's product managers for news feed, Greg Marr said Facebook reviewed "hundreds of thousands" of web pages and picked out the ones that had "this trait of having little substantial content and a lot of these disruptive, shocking, malicious kinds of ads."

Incidentally, The FTC currently does not have any guidelines for gender representation or sexualization, although it has provided guidelines on other issues such as false or misleading ads (i.e. those not backed up by scientific evidence).

"Now there's stronger support for the idea that portraying strong, professional and empowering women resonates more with the majority of users. With this study, we have found new evidence that proves there is a direct link between the portrayal of women in digital ads and the emotional responses in users - publishers and brand advertisers ignore this at their peril," said Rachel Payne, CEO of FEM Inc.

Other critical results in the study found that males in the middle management stage of their career - when they are most likely to be hiring young women and making decisions around who to promote - were most susceptible to these images and demonstrated a statistically significant increase in benevolent sexism after only one exposure to a sexualized ad. This benevolent sexism is linked to a belief that women have fundamentally different capabilities from men and need special treatment or protection. This can directly impact a woman's career if she is not given the same opportunity to take on challenging projects or a demanding role within the company - especially important in fields such as technology, finance and the military.

"Given the prevalence of sexualized imagery in ads as well as image thumbnails used by leading content recommendation engines on the web, this finding is striking in both its impact and longer-term implications," said Payne.

Here is hoping that brands, advertisers and publishers begin to acknowledge the efficacy of hyper-sexualized images. "The next area of study would be to focus on the prevalence of these ads, the magnitude of these effects and overall ad efficacy - with this study, we found early indicators that these ads simply do not perform for most users, only a predictable few, " said Payne.

Jill Richmond is a two-time founder, Marketing and Innovation Strategist and Founder of Moonshots Media Consulting. Follow her on Twitter.

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