Sex has been used in marketing campaigns for more than a century but the conventional wisdom that sex sells is under challenge.

A study by the University of Wisconsin has found that sexy advertising can backfire, with audiences viewing ads 10 per cent less favourably if used for unsexy products.

Humorous adverts were more effective than sexy ones for 79 per cent of customers surveyed, according to research by Adobe and Edelman Berland, which perhaps explains why beer commercials are increasingly likely to be funny rather than lusty.

Of course, there is no dispute that attractive people are better at promoting products.

It is the reason genetically-blessed Brad Pitt could probably flog whisky to pregnant women and Angelina Jolie could convince consumers that potato crisps are a gourmet food.

But what happens when advertisers use sex overtly, by showing lots of naked flesh, women in bikinis, and suggestive double entendres?

Perth-based marketing expert Becky Sangster claims it can be a risky strategy.

Ms Sangster, the principal marketing consultant at Platinum Mix, staged a marketing make-over for a company by taking the sizzle out of its image, which she claims helped boost sales by 26 per cent over two years.

The client is Irvin Bullbars, a Midvale company that has been fitting cars with some of the sturdiest bullbars either side of the Nullabor for more than 35 years.

Before the marketing make-over, it relied on an advertising campaign involving a woman in a bikini in front of a ute, complete with a suggestive headline.

But the new advertising strategy image takes a no-nonsense approach that plays on the bullbars’ inherent strength while stressing its custom-made designs as the all-important point of difference with its competitors.

“Advertising shouldn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator, businesses will find most customers are more sophisticated than that, ” she explained.

“The majority of Irvin Bullbars’ market is male, but the scantily-clad woman in the advertising image alienated women who are often make the purchasing decisions in the family.

“Unless you are promoting a sex-related product or service targeting a purely male market, it can be a risky strategy.”

But a modern marketing campaign involves more than choosing an image to run alongside the brand name.

Ms Sangster said her broad strategic marketing review of Irvin Bullbars involved researching the market, segmenting potential customers into target groups, and then developing strategies across multiple channels to appeal to each target.

Government clients, for example, may be attracted to marketing which stresses value for money, while private enterprise may be lured in by quality.

Once potential customer segments and relevant promotional messages have been identified, advertisers then have to find the best medium to reach them.

Ms Sangster said the first year of the marketing overhaul for Irvin Bullbars involved a strong focus on online branding, partly through the use of online search advertising, such as Google AdWords.

This is a system in which the highest-bidding company earns a spot on the top of the Google search list.

Ms Sangster said a further option offered by Google is Re-Marketing which involves installing computer cookies that follow potential clients after they leave the company’s webpage, prompting an ad to reappear days later when the user is on another website.

“This can be a very powerful form of advertising because it stimulates brand recall, ” she said.

Ms Sangster said Irvin Bullbars use of search advertising, its rebranded website and other strategies helped increase sales inquiries from 85 a month in 2011, to 144 a month in 2012.

In the second year of the company’s marketing make-over, Ms Sangster focused on improving the “inquiry to sales conversation rate” within the company’s sales team.

This involved a review of how staff managed inquires, as well as a simplification of the quotation form.

Once the brand and sales team were in top shape, Ms Sangster then moved the focus to an extensive press and online advertising campaign.

“A worst-case scenario is for a company to spend loads of money on a scattergun approach to marketing, and then failing to measure if it even works, ” she said.

Ms Sangster said a basic rule of thumb when determining a marketing budget was to spend two to four per cent of the company’s projected annual revenue on marketing to maintain a static market presence.

But to prompt steeper growth, a company should spend up to ten per cent of revenue.

“We used to find that some companies would ignore marketing all year, and then just before the Yellow Pages deadline hit they would throw $40,000 at one ad, ” she said.

“Companies should take the view that marketing is an investment, not just a cost.

“If they align their marketing budget with sales objectives, they will be able to demonstrate a return on the marketing investment.”


© The West Australian

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