Sex versus comedy: what sells best?

20 Jul 2016

  • Creative

The adage ‘sex sells’ is an oldie but a goodie. If you’re looking to stir debate within marketing circles, drop it into conversion. Still, using sex appeal to sell your wares only works for some brands. For the others, there’s comedy. Aussies love a campaign that tickles their funny bone but if your brand could go in either direction, which approach is most effective?

In order to answer this question, we spoke to two brands, one synonymous with sex and the other intrinsically linked to comedy. Michael Goldberg is the Creative Director at Victoria's Secret, purveyor of, according to the brand’s website, ‘The Sexiest Bras, Lingerie & Women's Fashion’. When asked if sex sells, he says: “When you hear the statement, it implies sex draws people's attention and somehow that motivates them to buy. I don't think that's true. Sex or sexiness sells when you understand people’s fundamental desire to feel sexy. So if you, through your products and through your brand, help the consumer to feel sexy, then that is a really powerful proposition.”

Sex itself doesn’t sell, Goldberg suggests, and this is supported by a study conducted at the Ohio State University last year. The research found when used in advertising, sex has the ability to impair memory and negatively impact attitudes and buying intentions.

If sex can’t seal the deal, what chances does comedy have, particularly given it’s so hard to get right? “Comedy is a lot harder than I think people realise,” says Walter Levitt, chief marketing officer for comedy channel Comedy Central. “That's why I genuinely appreciate people with comedic voices because it's extremely difficult to be funny and do it consistently.”

Levitt is the custodian of the Comedy Central brand that serves up humour to more than 95 million households via cable subscriptions in the USA in addition to digital platforms including Hulu, Amazon and Snapchat. Locally, Comedy Central recently partnered with IPTV provider Fetch TV.

Not only is Levitt selling funny, he relies on comedy to sell it. He says: “It would be impossible to market comedy without the marketing being funny. Comedy is a huge tool to market everything we do. Because we are so connected to the talented comedians we work with, we really try to reflect the point of view of the talent in our marketing.”

That’s not to say Victoria’s Secret is only relying on sexiness to sell its lacey smalls, humour also plays a part, generally of the cheeky variety, if you’ll pardon the pun. Goldberg says: “We have different definitions of sexy depending on the product category and the type of audience. And humour definitely can play into that. I would probably use words like ‘cheekiness’ and ‘irreverence’. That's particularly relevant to millennial consumers.”

All jokes aside, the notion that sex sells isn’t going away anytime soon. Levitt says: “Of course sex sells. We all love sex. We all think about sex. We all talk about sex and so it should be no great surprise that as you see advertisements that include sex, you're likely to have your attention captured. But my view is, at that point, you have to go beyond capturing attention. It has to connect in some way, to speak to you. That's where comedy can come in handy.”

Levitt concludes: “Use the sex to get people in the door, and then use the comedy to keep them inside and happy. That's probably the best combination of the two, in advertising anyway.”


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