She’s sitting alone in her convertible at the drive-in movie theater. Long blonde hair. Pink sweater over a short black and white polka dot dress.
Reaching into the white bag nestled between her legs she retrieves a hamburger and then pulls off the black ribbon holding her hair. The shiny gloss of her pouty pink lips separates as she spreads open her mouth and sinks her sparkling teeth into the juicy meat.
Swinging her black stilettos over the headrest she climbs into the back seat and bites into a fiery hot jalapeno. Fingers caress her gold necklace dragging beads of neck sweat across her salty skin.
She unties her pink sweater exposing a mass of cleavage, her breasts erupting, barely held in by a lacy black bra and buttons that are about to burst.
Another bite of the burger and she’s on her back, disconnecting the fabric cord clipped to her panties.
Needing a drink, she drapes herself across the front seat as she sucks on a red straw. Cooled off, she retreats into the back seat for another lip-biting session with her favorite hot burger.
No, I’m not watching porn. It’s an accurate description of a Carl’s Jr. commercial promoting their Southwest Patty Melt sandwich.
The spot didn’t make me want to run through the drive-through, but it sure did catch my attention. It brings up an old debate: does sex really sell?
According to the research conducted by John Wertz, University of Illinois Advertising Professor, it can definitely grab your attention but in most cases, the benefit of using sex in advertising stops there. “We found that people remember ads with sexual appeals more than those without, but that effect doesn’t extend to the brands or products that are featured in the ads.” Audiences remember the ads. But they don’t remember what the sexy spots were advertising.
If you use sex to grab attention but don’t advance your brand recall or preference, are you really doing any good?
We have been hearing for decades that sex sells, so what was that based on? This all started back in 1871 by the Pearl Tobacco brand which featured a naked maiden on the package cover. Later in 1885, W. Duke & Sons inserted trading cards into cigarette packs that featured sexually provocative starlets and Duke grew to become the leading American cigarette brand by 1890, so it’s no wonder marketing mavens started to pay attention to this strategy. In this case, using sex appeal seems to have done its job. So does using sex to sell work, or not?
As we dig further we learn that using provocative images or language to sell products can actually be very effective if three things are true:
- First, the product you are promoting needs to make sense to the consumer. What does a new burger have to do with intimacy? You might argue they were promoting the hotness of the jalapeno burger. But, that might be a stretch since the spot is so sexy it’s hard to notice the hamburger. Maybe that’s why Carl’s Jr eventually discontinued that campaign.
- Second, you have to make sure that you are targeting the right audience. The research from John Wertz tells us that “The strongest finding was probably the least surprising, which is that males, on average, like ads with sexual appeals, and females dislike them”. However, we were surprised at how negative female attitudes were toward these ads.” Men vs. women, young vs. old, some groups just respond better to a sultry syntax so make sure you are addressing the right group the right way.
- And third, your message, tone, and delivery must be right and on-brand for your company. If you have a conservative reputation in the market, you shouldn’t launch an ad featuring a blonde busty bombshell as your new spokesperson.
Since most people have sex on a mattress, should our industry be leaning into this approach with consumers? The answer is absolutely, if done the right way.
Consider that Calvin Klein, Axe, Pepsi, Coke, Budweiser, and Levis have all used sex in their ads to sell products and I don’t remember the last time I drank a Pepsi that ever got me “in the mood.” The mattress, however, is a major player when it comes to the act of intimacy. People have sex on our products so if anyone is justified in using this approach it should be us!
I was giving a keynote speech to the National Bedding Federation in Telford, England and I asked the audience, “Are mattresses sexy?” As I looked out into the crowd of over 400 people, there was a clear consensus that those in attendance agreed: mattresses definitely are not sexy. I said “I disagree. We simply choose not to make them sexy and because of that we are missing a very big opportunity.”
It has been proven over and over that consumers make buying decisions based on emotion so let’s start with that.
Intimate moments can be very emotional. It’s a physical act that connects us to our partner in a meaningful way. If we tap into that idea and take ownership of our role in making that a good experience, we can help people see a mattress purchase in a much different way.
My podcast partner Mark Kinsley and I interviewed more than 255 people in Las Vegas, Nevada, and asked them to evaluate two mattresses, as if they were shopping in a retail store. But we asked them to think about each mattress for sleep and for sex. After 50 in-depth interviews with a select group, we learned that the type of bed you have can definitely impact the experience of your most intimate moments.
The primary takeaway was that beds made with coils were able to return energy to the couple providing a playful bounce that worked with and for the couple as an active support system. Those making love on all memory foam beds would complain of getting “stuck in the mud” on a passive support system. In other words, the construction of your bed has a direct impact on the outcome of your horizontal mambo.
If the Chief Marketing Officer of Coke discovered that their brand new formula for Coca-Cola has been proven to have a positive impact on sex, do you think that they might mention that in their advertising? Of course, they would, so why does the mattress industry shy away from the subject?
It’s possible that the powers that be believe using sex to sell mattresses just doesn’t work.
Sealy tried it with their “Whatever you do in bed, Sealy supports it” campaign. The ad which made its debut at Super Bowl XLV definitely made a splash in the mattress industry. Some retailers loved it and others hated it so you know they did something right, as there was very little room for a milk-toast reaction. Their approach was to show several couples falling back into bed directly after a session of boot knocking, in a post-orgasmic glow of satisfaction. Panting, tired, and with smiles that stretched from ear to ear, they fade in the graphic, “Whatever you do in bed, Sealy supports it.”
We would like to celebrate Sealy for their willingness to push the envelope here. They made a bold move as an industry leader and tried something that nobody else had tried at this level, so for that, they deserve a lot of respect. The question for this article is, did they address the issue in the right way?
If you are going to talk about making whoopee and tie it directly to your product you can do that by making the message funny, romantic, or even with a subtle reference — you don’t even have to attack it directly to make your point. If you didn’t like the approach that Sealy took, does that mean that using sex to sell mattresses doesn’t work? No it does not, it just means that this approach fell short.
Imagine it’s Valentine’s Day, not your typical mattress shopping holiday, but you decide to run a new spot. It opens with sexy music, maybe At Last by Etta James. You see a couple getting home from work, tossing their keys on the bar as they open up an amazing bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Ellman Family Vineyard. They exchange a look, a smile, and a short dance in front of their floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the big city lights. The next thing you know the couple disappears behind the door to their master suite, a soft fade to black, and the graphic reads, “For those moments that matter” followed by your logo.
Will that commercial sell beds? No idea, but it’s a different approach that will make you feel something. The good news is that there are so many different ways to attack this issue because not much has been tried when it comes to connecting the mattress to intimacy. You don’t even need to create an ad to talk about this because there are other ways to engage your customers.
If you talk to the retail sales associates (RSAs) many will tell you that it’s common for consumers to ask about how the mattress will perform when it comes to sex. They’re asking because they want to know and we aren’t offering much information on the subject, leaving the sales force to come up with their own way of talking about this hot topic.
We asked the RSA’s in the Facebook group Mattress Sales People what they thought about having this kind of conversation with the consumer and this is what they said.
“Most of my experience tells me it’s more of a reserved taboo subject. If you want to be taken seriously and avoid being labeled a creepy mattress salesperson, then focus on the health benefits and how proper sleep helps all aspects of life. Now, that being said, if someone is unabashedly waving their freak flag I’d point them towards the hybrids for that “bounce if ya know what I mean. :-)” Rick Bush
“I have a colleague who sells a lot of mattresses to a big swingers club and it’s obvious what their use is for. My take is everyone knows we have sex on mattresses. And tables. And countertops. And in cars and showers and any other place a creative human being can imagine. No need to overplay the obvious.” Todd Miller
“We don’t mention it but if asked, we answer. It’s too taboo to freely discuss. The easiest reply has been “Not great on a foam mattress. Foam mattresses are like laying in sand. Minimizes movement too well.” From there, change the subject lol!” Gretchen Garrett Casillas
“I won’t bring it up until my customer does. Depending on my rapport my typical response to any question regarding sex on the bed is basically “the main thing we want to focus on is your sleep, you do that for 8 hours on the bed and the other thing for 8 minutes (wife usually giggles). A bed is for sleeping, you have couches, dinner tables, and public spaces for other activities” Amber Jade
“The retailer I work for does not have any sex specific messaging on the website, however our reps are well trained and lead with empathy and human connection. Allowing a comfortable, relaxed interaction which would make talking about anything possible. The conversation must yield the ultimate desires of the guest, I would certainly as a manager encourage sales reps to gracefully react to that type of questioning surrounding the product. But would not necessarily force it into a process or anything.” Sam Richardson
“I sold waterbeds in the 70’s. Whenever a customer brought up the subject which happened quite frequently I would always make a joke, You push once and you get two free ones back, then go on with my presentation.” Charles Cohen
The bottom line here is that sex is clearly on the minds of the consumer, but on the sales floor it must be dealt with like a technician dismantling a bomb; very carefully.
So what’s a good way to handle this topic without getting yourself into trouble? Educate customers in advance. Write some blogs on your site that speak to some of the questions you get on the sales floor. Start a conversation in social media connecting the mattress to the experience and educate the audience in a fun and controlled way. Create a handout to give your RSAs so they don’t have to engage in a conversation. If it does come up, teach them to ask good questions because if a customer is asking about sex, they may have had a negative experience on a product that didn’t work for their needs.
There are too many dotted lines in the mattress industry. Many consumers completely understand that great sleep can help them live a better quality of life so there is a “solid line connection between the two things. Believe it or not, many consumers don’t see the mattress as the way to get the joy that great sleep delivers — so the dotted line from a mattress to happy life never gets filled in. The same is true for intimacy. People want to enjoy sex to the fullest, but very few realize that their bed can directly impact the experience. If we aren’t connecting those dots, nobody will.
If before buying a bed you or your partner knew that one was better for intimacy than the other, would that impact your decision to buy if comfort was similar on both models?
If you bought a bed and got it home and it was a horrible experience when it came to shagging, would you be less happy with your purchase decision?
If making love was difficult because of the sleep surface, would it decrease the frequency of your intimate moments? Research says it does.
Sex is a beautiful thing and just about everybody does it, and wants more of it. As a matter of fact, according to this study married couples have sex 1.1 times a week or just about five times a month so this is something that is very relevant to a large percentage of the population — so do we just ignore it? You don’t have to shoot a commercial with a buxom blonde eating a burger on your mattress, but there are ways to drive emotion into the sale. The right message, said in the right way, in the right context to the right audience can be very effective. And it can bring joy to people’s lives.