There is big money to be made from advertising, and sex sells. But if women are the target, the advert must be classy, sophisticated and valued highly, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota claim that women are often put off by adverts with sexual imagery, but they can be charmed into changing their minds if the advertised item is pricey enough.

The results, published in Psychological Science, show that if women connect sexual images with high-value consumer goods, they respond more positively to it.

Sexual economics theory holds the key, says Kathleen Vohs from the university’s Carlson School of Management. She explains:

“Women generally show spontaneous negative attitudes toward sexual images. Sexual economics theory offers a reason why: The use of sexual imagery is inimical to women’s vested interest in sex being portrayed as infrequent, special, and rare.”

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Researchers found that women were more comfortable with sexual images in adverts if the goods being advertized were of high value.

The researchers claim that women’s reactions to sexual images reveal “deep-seated preferences about how sex should be used and understood.”

For the study, Vohs and colleagues invited both male and female participants to view adverts for women’s watches. In some of the ads, explicitly sexual images were used with the watch, while in others, the watch was set against a dramatic mountain range.

The price tag of the watch also varied considerably – just $10 in some ads and $1,250 in others.

All participants were asked to memorize a 10-digit code before watching the ads – a “cognitive distraction” to stop them from thinking too deeply about the adverts so they would give a more emotional gut reaction.

The researchers noted that women rated an advert with sexual imagery and a cheap watch more negatively when compared with the same watch featuring explicit imagery and a hefty price tag.

The women expressed negative emotions, ranging from feeling disgusted or upset, to being unpleasantly surprised or even angry about a cheap watch being associated with sex.

Interestingly, the women expressed no such emotions about the adverts when the watch was set against the mountain range.

The male participants reported similar reactions to the sexy images, regardless of the price of the watch.

The researchers then questioned whether the men’s reaction was simply because they deemed women’s watches irrelevant. So they asked men to rate similar adverts with men’s watches getting the same results for the sexual imagery, regardless of the price.

Vohs concludes:

We were able to get these effects even when participants weren’t actually in a purchasing scenario. Just a quick exposure to an ad was enough for theories of sexual economics to kick in.”

She adds that this “suggests that the process happens at a deep, intuitive level.”