Monday, June 9, 2008

The science behind advertisers' thong and dance

Thanks, Dawn, for inviting me to post.

Last week, aimless clicking through blogs and news aggregators brought me to the following research summary:

Bikini-clad Women Make Men Impatient

ScienceDaily (Jun. 2, 2008) - Images of sexy women tend to whet men's sexual appetite. But stimulating new research in the Journal of Consumer Research says there's more than meets the eye. A recent study shows that men who watched sexy videos or handled lingerie sought immediate gratification-even when they were making decisions about money, soda, and candy.
After exposure to sexy images, men tend to choose smaller immediate rewards over larger rewards that must be postponed. In other words, arousal biases men against delayed gratification.

More from the summary:
"It seems that sexual appetite causes a greater urgency to consume anything rewarding," the authors suggest. Thus, the activation of sexual desire appears to spill over into other brain systems involved in reward-seeking behaviors, even the cognitive desire for money. ...

The authors believe the stimuli bring men’s minds to the present as opposed to the future. "The study demonstrates that bikinis cause a shift in time preference: Men live in the here and now when they glance at pictures featuring women in lingerie. That is, men will choose the immediately available rewards and seek immediate gratification after sex cue exposure."
On reading this, my first three reactions were:
1. It’s obvious.
2. I wish marketers didn’t know it.
3. Isn’t there anything better for scientists to do than showing bikini pictures to male volunteers? They haven’t yet perfected the lawn-mowing robot or the self-driving car, you know.

I showed the article to a colleague, who made a much more mature observation: This research provides a scientific basis for modesty. I wish to explore that angle here.

At the very least, these findings reveal the inner workings of "sex sells" marketing. Ads containing sex cues shorten men’s time horizons, making it more difficult for them to choose in line with their long term interests.

Learning to delay gratification is an important life skill, one that children must learn if they are to be mature adults capable of loving relationships. Advertising using sex appeal complicates the learning and practice of that skill. It feeds our immediate gratification culture, with its indifference to history, philosophy and much of our cultural inheritance.

Advertising that appeals to sex relies on a biological trick. It bypasses our deliberative conscious minds and manipulates us on the basis of factors we cannot control. It thus precludes any real human relationship between the people at the sending and receiving ends of the message. (The philosophically inclined may recognize that it violates Kant's command to treat humanity always as an end in itself, that is, with respect for man’s rational nature.)

These ideas seem quaint, I know. Human relationships in commerce. Respect for people’s rational decision making capacity, rather than their irrational predilections. Treating customers as fellow citizens, not as spenders of money. Rejection of all of these quaint ideas is summed up in the reduction of the client/customer to a "consumer."

I recall being told that all advertising these days relies on nonrational manipulation of memory, sex drive, etc. I do not dispute it, but I lament it. It is sign of fundamental hostility between members of society. It is the mark of an unhealthy culture.

Was it always so? Modesty, when it was culturally normative, had a purpose. It made certain valuable cultural goods easier to realize. It made delayed gratification easier to learn when we are young, and easier to practice when we are grown. This research gives us one more reason for holding on to the remnants of a culture of modesty.

Christopher Anadale is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri.