Columns / Discourse / April 27, 2011

The Neuroscience of: Why sex sells


Now that I have your attention, here is a run down of structures and chemicals involved in combining sex with advertising. (These are just some- there are too many involved with sex to put in one article).

Remember your unconscious brain is a pure animal – it would love to do nothing more than sleep, eat, stay alive and procreate. One study done at Stanford University placed subjects in functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) and showed them provocative pictures at tenths of a second. They wanted to see if the subconscious brain would react without the subjects being consciously aware. And they found this to be true. The whole brain lit up in a frenzy of arousal all before the subject consciously knew anything happened. One structure in particular was the nucleus Accumbens (NAc). It is responsible for feelings of reward, pleasure and sexual desire (with the neurotransmitter (NT) “dopamine”).

This subconscious attention reflex is called our “general orienting response” and is a part of our evolutionary heritage. It isn’t limited to when you see a sexy hottie-with-a-body walk by; scare your friends and that look of panic they get is their orienting response. In the wild an instinctual sensitivity to movement was necessary to detect potential predatory threats; if you can’t tell there’s a predator following you then you’re going to be dinner. Nowadays the saying is “if you cant find the fool in the room its probably you.” Same difference – someone is the predator and someone is the unknowing prey unless your body is ready to release these NTs.

Physiologically, during the orientating response your blood vessels to the brain quickly dilate, your heart rate slows, you start really focusing and blood vessels to your major muscle groups constrict. This makes you all tense, alert and, depending on how quick you are on your feet, you either become a fighting machine or a deer in headlights. Acetylcholine, norepinephrine and dopamine are the main NTs here. They do a lot of things but right now they are tied to your voluntary muscular control, as opposed to involuntary muscle control, aka your cardiac muscles (heart). When’s the last time you consciously thought to yourself, “okay heart, now pump blood in the atrium, now pump out of the atrium.” Never.

In addition, alpha waves in your brain are blocked for a few seconds. This is key support that the brain does go on autopilot. Alpha waves equate to conscious thought and a decrease or lack of them means your subconscious has decided you don’t know what’s best for you anymore and has taken over.

The same university study found by measuring subjects’ brain wave activity that those sexy advertisements with more zooming, stylistic effects and scene cutaways trigger this same orienting response effect. So if you can throw in a sexy figure, zoom up and down the body, and cutaway to different scenes rapidly you’ve got grade-A advertisement, right?

Wrong. The same researchers later found that there is a limit. Increasing the rate of cuts, edits, and super-hot sexy people will eventually overload the brain, causing it to remember the brand but almost none of the details – including what the product even is. But does any network listen? Nope, not at all. They all figure as long as the name brand gets in there the message doesn’t matter. So they throw more images of the thin, big boobed, huge-assed women and tall, broad, six-packed men next to a random product.

Remember, nothing on TV is really real, but these phony images affect your brain in real ways. And while one hour of TV isn’t substantial, a lifetime surrounded by media is. Be careful.

Gabe Paz

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