John Wirtz

A recent journal article by assistant professor John G. Wirtz is ranked in the top 1 percent of recently published research in terms of media coverage and social media mentions, according to Altmetric, a digital science company that analyzes online attention to academic research. Wirtz’s article is ranked 864 out of the 232,922 journal articles, books, encyclopedia entries, and other scholarship published in the last year and tracked by Altmetric.

“I knew there was a lot of interest in the article when it hit the front page of Reddit,” Wirtz said. “But I was surprised that the volume of media coverage and online activity was so high compared to all of the topics and different types of research that have been produced since our study came out this summer.”

Wirtz’s article reported the results of one of the first meta-analyses of studies examining the effects of sexual appeals in advertisements on memory, attitude, and purchase intention. One of the key findings in the study was that averaged across 54 studies involving almost 7,000 participants the effect of sexual appeals on purchase attention was not only not statistically significant, it was effectively zero.

After the University of Illinois News Bureau highlighted the study, a number of journalists, online news outlets, and bloggers, seized on the purchase intention finding, framing it as “proof” that “sex doesn’t sell.” The media coverage then produced a flurry of social media activity.

“The ironic thing is that the media coverage and the social media buzz it produced represents the real take-home message of the study,” Wirtz said. “Nudity and visual depictions of sexual activity attract our attention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that using a sexual appeal will make us want to buy a product. So, the headline ‘sex doesn’t sell,’ only gives part of the picture. It’s more accurate to say, ‘Sex in advertising—it’s complicated.’”