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Bikinis make men impulsive

It’s long been known that sex sells, but previous research has assumed that this effect is specific to the product being advertised. This ranges from the very direct, “If you use this deodorant, you will be chased by sexy women,” to a more general halo effect, in which good feelings generated by images of sexy women are associated with the product.

Now, research suggests another way that sex can sell. Bram van den Bergh and colleagues at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium found that provoking thoughts of sex made men more impulsive regarding money, soft drinks and sweets.

This study builds on two strands of previous research. Firstly, appetite and temptation make people impulsive. This is measured by a preference for a small reward now over a larger reward later. For example, someone who can see a chocolate cake (rather than just being told that there is one) is more likely to choose a very small piece of cake now rather than a larger piece later. The second strand of research is that the same brain areas respond to a wide range of rewards. For example, sex, drugs and money all activate the same neural circuitry. 

Van den Bergh and colleagues predicted that thoughts of sex would make men more impulsive, not just regarding sex but in other areas as well. Across several experiments, the researchers used a range of different methods to provoke thoughts of sex, including showing pictures of scantily clad models, asking the men to assess bras and showing an advert in which bikini-clad women run across hills, fields and beaches.

Impulsivity was measured by asking how much money (or how many cans of pop or candy bars) they would require at different points in the future to make them indifferent to receiving €15 (or 15 cans of pop/ candy bars) now. Asking for more money at a future date indicates a greater preference for a reward now, or greater impulsivity.

In all variations of the study the result was the same: That men were more impulsive after thinking about sex. However, it was possible to suppress the effect by making the men feel relatively rich (implying that other people are poorer). This supports the theory of a general appetite system: Making the men feel rich reduced their appetite (for money), so counteracting the increased appetite (for sex), which also applied to money, soft drinks and sweets.

What does this have to do with alcohol marketing? Impulsivity is particularly relevant to point-of-sale promotions, that is those seen in a shop, bar or club as opposed to those seen in a magazine or on television. An advertising poster showing an attractive woman on a pub wall or next to the shop display of beer would make men more impulsive and so more likely to buy alcohol. Clubs that employ scantily clad women to circulate selling spirits to (male) customers are clearly benefiting from this effect.

Van den Bergh, Dewitte & Warlop (2008) Bikinis instigate generalized impatience in intertemporal choice. Journal of Consumer Research vol. 35, pp 85-97 DOI: 10.1086/525505