Where's the Lovin'?

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Marketers may use sex to sell, but consumers are looking for more of a committed relationship.

Sex sells - or so we're told. But according to consumers, the heart makes purchasing decisions, not the libido. In this month's exclusive survey conducted for American Demographics by market research firm Market Facts, 53 percent of respondents surveyed say they are more likely to buy a product that is advertised using the imagery of love. That's twice the percentage (26 percent) of people who report that allusions to sex in an ad makes them pull out the billfold (see chart).

Sex is actually a turnoff for many consumers, according to the survey. An overwhelming 61 percent of the respondents say that sexual imagery in a product's ad makes them less likely to buy it. And nearly one- third (31 percent) of those surveyed say they're downright offended by the use of sex in advertising. Those most affronted are women (41 percent) and the retired (42 percent).

Of course, sex sells better in some camps than others. It's no surprise, for instance, that men are more receptive to the approach than women. Thirty-nine percent of men say their propensity to buy a product would rise if the ad's content was sexual, compared with 15 percent of women. By the same token, 44 percent of young adults (aged 18 to 24) say they're more likely to buy clothes if an ad uses images of sex, while only 31 percent are more likely to buy clothes if an ad uses images of love.

But overall, the survey showed the love connection proves far more powerful. For example, 38 percent of consumers say that images of love would make them more likely to buy furniture, while only 10 percent say they would be turned on by images of sex. Likewise, 35 percent say a message of love would make them want to buy appliances, while only 8 percent say sex would help clinch the sale.

The challenge for marketers? How to hit the right hearts when aiming Cupid's arrow. Indeed, "love marketing" has the potential to backfire royally when foisted on the wrong audience. When asked about their initial reaction to love-theme ads, 28 percent of respondents admit they are likely to roll their eyes and make a sarcastic joke. Households with annual incomes of $75,000 and more are the most annoyed by ads that tug at the heartstrings (37 percent).

But cynicism is the exception, not the rule. In fact, 22 percent of those surveyed admit that they admire a company that promotes traditional values like love, and another 23 percent say they feel a greater emotional attachment to a product if a message of love is transmitted in the advertisement. Younger consumers are the most likely to become emotional over such ads (30 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 32 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are taken in by love). At the same time, these consumers are also the most easily aroused by sexual themes in advertising. While 36 percent of the general public says it's likely to pay more attention to an ad if it contains images of sex, 51 percent of both 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds admit the same. Forty-eight percent of wealthy households - remember, the one's most contemptuous of love themes? - are also significantly more likely to perk up in response to a steamy ad.

Relationship status can also determine who sees sexually suggestive ads through rose-tinted lenses and who wears black-out shades. Twenty-eight percent of Americans who are in a committed relationship respond to images of sex, compared with 49 percent of those in a casual relationship. Surprisingly, people who say that they're not involved in any type of romantic relationship at all tend to side with the committed in their sensitivity to sex in advertising (32 percent say they would be more likely to buy a product using sex to sell). But when it comes to love, it seems the non-committal are still looking for that missing something. Sixty-four percent of those in casual relationships would be more likely to buy something marketed with a little touch of love, 5 percentage points more than committed folks and 12 percentage points more than the uninvolved. Sound tricky? As they say: That's the game of love.

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