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Increasingly, social marketers are using sexual information in public service announcements and collateral material for a wide range of causes. This study builds on previous research to explain how sexual appeals can affect cognitive processing and persuasion for "help-self' social marketing topics. It also goes beyond traditional single-message research designs by testing matched pairs of appeals (sexual / nonsexual) for 13 social marketing topics. The major finding was that sexual appeals were more persuasive overall than matched nonsexual appeals for social marketing topics. Sexual appeals also stimulated more favorable ad execution-related thoughts but had a negative effect on cognitive elaboration (e.g., support and counterarguments). Respondents also reported that sexual appeals were more attention getting, likeable, dynamic, and somewhat more apt to increase their interest in the topic than were nonsexual appeals. These findings suggest that persuasion is largely the result of peripheral processing and distraction from somewhat unpleasant messages when receivers are expected to counterargue the message or be resistant to change.
Sexual information, whether in the form of pictures, stories, or sounds, has been shown to evoke a predictable range of emotional responses within viewers. Advertising research reveals that sexual appeals are attention getting, arousing, affect inducing, and memorable (for review, see Belch, Belch, and Villarreal 1987). These attributes may be one reason social marketers and nonprofit organizations use sexual appeals for a variety of topics ranging from skin and breast cancer (Newsweek 1996) to sexually transmitted diseases to attempts to increase attendance at opera performances and university sporting events (Associated Press 1999; Chism 1999). These instances and others suggest that sexual appeals may be effective for social marketing, despite the lack of empirical evidence that indicates the efficacy of these appeals beyond the consumer product context. Verification of these effects (or lack thereof) will prove valuable to social cause organizations that use-or are considering using-sexual appeals.
Goals of the present research are twofold: One, to build on and integrate prior sexual appeal research and two, to determine if and how sexual appeals are effective for a range of socially relevant topics (e.g., the arts, literacy, disease prevention, health). To achieve these goals, this study employed a method and analysis plan particularly suited to the experimental investigation of message effects: a replicated treatment comparison (Jackson 1992).
Sexual Appeals in Advertising
Appeals utilizing overt sexual information are common in American main-stream consumer advertising (Reichert et al. 1999; Soley and Reid 1988), and the effects of these appeals are well documented (for review, see Belch, Belch, and Villarreal 1987; Percy and Rossiter 1992). Sexual appeals can be broadly defined as messages, whether as brand information in advertising contexts or as persuasive appeals in social marketing contexts, that are associated with sexual information. Usually represented as images, verbal elements, or both, sexual information can be integrated with the message to greater or lesser degrees.
Although advertising researchers have examined several types of sexual information (e.g., nudity, behavior, physical attractiveness, double entendre) from either information processing or emotional perspectives, an important underlying conceptual commonality is that the information evokes sexual thoughts and/or feelings in the viewer. To this end, there are several generalizations that can be drawn across these studies.
For one, perceptual and processing resources are directed toward the sexual information in the ad instead of toward the brand. Consistently, studies have demonstrated that sexual appeals attract attention to the ad, typically without a corresponding advantage for brand information processing (e.g., brand name recall; Alexander and Judd 1978; Grazer and Keesling 1995; Reid and Soley 1981, 1983; Severn, Belch, and Belch 1990; Steadman 1969). These findings led MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski (1991) to advance the proposition that hedonic appeals (i.e., sex) increase motivation to process the ad execution, largely at the expense of the brand.
Work by LaTour (1990; LaTour and Henthorne 1993; LaTour, Pitts, and Snook-Luther 1990) has provided insight into the emotional impact of sexual appeals, specifically the level and nature of evoked arousal and attitudes toward the ad and brand. Typically, there is a direct relationship between the positively valenced arousal evoked by sexual appeals and evaluations. It is important to note that both arousal and valence are influenced by factors such as gender and explicitness of the appeal (e.g., LaTour and Henthorne 1993). Attitudes also are influenced by the relevance of the sexual appeal to the product (Simpson, Horton, and Brown 1996). Additional support for these findings can be found outside the advertising literature (Dekker and Everaerd 1989; Lang et al. 1993).
Given these findings, Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) provides a framework to understand the role of sexual appeals in persuasion (Petty and Cacioppo 1983, 1986). According to ELM, persuasion can occur along a continuum of elaboration. Persuasion resulting from extensive issue-relevant thinking is referred to as central route processing; receivers engage in vigilant examination of message information, carefully scrutinize arguments, generate new arguments, and recall arguments from memory. As motivation and ability to engage in systematic elaboration is reduced (e.g., distraction or low involvement), receivers are less likely to engage in effortful elaboration and are, consequently, more likely to rely on peripheral cues or heuristics (e.g., positive affect, number of arguments) to guide decision making. Evidence suggests this process occurs in response to sexual ad appeals. For example, several studies have shown a purchase intention advantage for sexual appeals despite a decrease in brand information pr ocessing (Grazer and Keesling 1995; Severn, Belch, and Belch 1990). These findings suggest that, as motivation is reduced, respondents are influenced by peripheral cues (e.g., affective reactions to the sexual imagery), not by extensive message elaboration.
On the basis of prior research, it appears that the emotional nature of sexual information in advertising plays an important role in processing, evaluation, and persuasion. Evidence clearly indicates that sexual information attracts attention, is interesting and engaging, and directs processing resources toward the sexual stimulus instead of the brand. Because social marketers are using sexual information in public service announcements (PSAs) and collateral material, it is important to understand how sexual appeals may influence audiences for social marketing topics.
Sexual Appeals and Social Marketing
Social marketing is a term coined in 1971 to describe the use of marketing principles for social causes (Kotler and Roberto 1989). Fine (1992, p. 3) describes it as "the application of commercial marketing methods to help create demand for 'social products': [for example] energy conservation, woman's rights, 55-mph speed limit, cancer research, gay rights, seat belt use, [etc.]." Concepts frequently employed by social marketers include segmentation, positioning, emphasis on human needs and motivations, and the effective communication of benefits.
A component of most social marketing campaigns is the PSA. Public service announcements come in multiple modalities (e.g., television spots, posters, brochures) and primarily serve to increase public awareness of the issue but also may influence relevant beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (O'Keefe and Reid 1990). Although outcomes for campaigns range from awareness to behavior change, social marketing often deals with resistant behaviors that may be difficult to change through exposure to PSAs alone (Andreasen 1991). By their very nature, however, PSAs have the potential to be observed and processed by a large cross-section of individuals at various levels of risk and involvement.
Generally, PSAs can be distinguished as "help-self" (aimed at improving oneself in some manner) or "help-other" (encouraging the public to donate time or money; Bagozzi and Moore 1994). The appeal of choice for most help-self social marketing PSAs is fear (see Siegel, Grodsky, and Herman 1986). Although approaches designed to increase anxiety are effective, several researchers have noted the paucity of alternative message strategies for social marketing (e.g., humor, erotic themes) and called for research to determine their effects (Adelman 1992; Atkin and Marshall 1996). In particular, Solomon and DeJong (1986), arguing from a social marketing perspective, suggest that people often are motivated by things they want (e.g., status, sexual pleasure, peace of mind) rather than fear of loss or negative consequences.
These reasons, as well as the reasons advertisers use sexual appeals, may be why social marketers are integrating sexual information into PSAs and collateral materials for a range of issues. For some time, social marketers have used sexual information to promote safe sex behaviors to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., American Social Health Association 1997; Tucson AIDS Project 1992). Recently, however, sexual information has been used in creative ways for causes not explicitly linked to sex. For example, an American Cancer Society PSA featured a mildly suggestive image of a couple applying sunscreen with the headline "How to rub out skin cancer." Similarly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) commissioned a PSA featuring a sexually attractive woman as seen through "beer goggles" (Adweek 1998). Posters were placed in bars and restrooms as a reminder of alcohol's effects. Obviously, sexual appeals are not applicable to every social marketing situation, but organizat ions are using these appeals in creative ways to promote awareness and influence beliefs for topics as seemingly unsexy as skin cancer awareness and breast cancer research.
From a social …