The premise that sex sells is not a new one. Advertising executives have believed it for years. The simple message has been that the sexier your content, the more you will sell. It’s been a pretty successful tactic. Some of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time have been overtly sexual. Wonderbra’s 1994 adverts infamously resulted in several car crashes, with drivers blaming distracting billboards. However, it’s not just mainstream advertising that has become highly sexualised. It looks like some of the best Shopify stores are doing it too…

Browsing through the Shopify Experts database, for example, you’ll see a large number of sexy images. Given the opportunity to display one portfolio item that will grab the attention of prospective clients, many agencies are going for the sexiest image that they can find. It looks like sexy sells.

This isn’t a new phenomenon:

“Back in 1885, W.Duke and Sons, a manufacturer of facial soap, included trading cards in the soap’s packaging that included erotic images of the day’s most popular female stars. The link between soap and sex is slim at best, but it worked. And ever since, brands have purposely linked themselves to suggestive (or downright blatant) sexual imagery in the search for new customers. In particular, alcohol, fashion, perfume and car advertisements have created strong links with sex.Paul Suggett – “Sex in Advertising”

An old one it might be, but the issue of sexy advertising has never been so topical.

On the one hand, store owners have greater access to their customers than ever before. Advertising has never been cheaper. And, with highly visual social platforms like Instagram having a huge influence on the way that we market our businesses, growing numbers of online businesses are using sexy images to try and increase their sales.

However, there is also a growing wave of discontent against businesses who use sex to sell. The No More Page 3 Campaign, which is asking The Sun to discontinue its notorious Page 3 feature, has over 240,000 signatures at the time of writing. The international growth of many businesses – even small startups – has also changed things. Cross-cultural considerations mean that there is a serious risk of offending international customers.

This creates an intriguing position for business owners looking to develop the best Shopify stores. Many Shopify Experts are using sexy images to sell their services, implicity encouraging their clients to do likewise. In a highly crowded market it’s vital to stand out from the crowd. Your store needs to be as visually stimulating as possible if it’s going to generate profitable sales. Clearly there are various factors that need to be taken into consideration by store owners.

In this article we’ll be considering some of these issues. We’ll be asking if sexy actually sells, and if so, why sexy sells. We’ll also look at some of the best Shopify stores to see how they approach this issue.

Does Sexy Actually Sell?

The first question to consider is whether sexy actually sells. After all, there are various risks associated with sexy advertising, and if it’s going to have a detrimental effect on your business then you need to know this before finalising your advertising strategy.

All the evidence seems to suggest that sexy sells if you’re selling sexy products; if your products aren’t sexy then a sexy advert is likely to do more harm than good.

Why is this? Well, there are various things to consider.

Sexy Adverts Sell Sexy Products

Sex is a very powerful human need. It influences the way that we think about ourselves and how we make decisions. If you’re selling sexy products then it’s likely that you’ll factor this into your advertising strategy.

Sexy content – particularly images – is likely to have a much higher click-through rate from search engines. There’s a reason that so much linkbait uses provactive images to try and attract clicks from users, normally to drive advertising revenues.

This is also true for social media engagement. A study by Buffer showed that Tweets with images receive a significantly higher engagement than those without. Instagram is a great platform for businesses, but it’s completely dependent upon users finding your content visually stimulating. In this context sexy images are much more likely to engage users, particularly if they closely relate to the products that you’re actually selling.

If you’re selling sexy products then using sexy images is likely to have a positive impact on your bottom line.

When Sexy Adverts are a Turnoff

If you’re not selling sexy products, however, science suggests that sexy doesn’t sell.  Does sexy actually sell? For the vast majority of Ecommerce store owners the answer is almost certainly therefore going to be “no!”.

Surprisingly, there’s no evidence that sexy adverts improve our memory. Sexy adverts might capture the audience’s attention, but neutral adverts tend to be more memorable. In other words, a sexy image or advert might attract clicks from prospective customers, but it won’t help them to remember your business.

In fact, it would seem that the opposite is true; neutral adverts tend to be more memorable.

“Brad Bushman’s studies looked at whether putting an advertisement in a violent or sexual programme improves or impairs memory for it… The studies showed that those watching the neutral programme remembered most.  Irrespective of their sex or age or how much they liked the programme the sex and violent programmes seemed to impair memory for the advertised products.” Adrian Furnham in Psychology Today

Sexy adverts are no substitute for a quality product. If what you’re selling doesn’t match up to your advertising then you’re unlikely to sell to the same customer again. In other words, you’ll have to keep on winning new business, which is so much harder than gaining a loyal following. It’s clearly better to focus on winning customers who will remain loyal to your brand in the long term.

There are also several dangers with sexy advertising.

You risk ostracising certain customers, particularly if your adverts are deemed inappropriate or unnecessarily risque. There are also strong cultural implications for international businesses who use sexy advertising. The last thing you want is to lose a client because your website causes offence in their culture.

You also run the risk of incurring a crippling bounce rate, particularly if you’re using sexy images to attract visitors to your website. The fact is that you’re essentially tricking users into visiting your website, and a huge percentage are simply going to head for the exit. This isn’t the smartest move if you’re trying to build a popular brand. It’s also a waste of time; you could have spent that time and energy pursuing a more effective SEO and marketing strategy.

It’s also very hard to appeal to both genders with sexy advertising. A few years ago we’d often hear that a provocative image of a woman, for example, would attract both sexes because women would want to be her and men would want to be with her. However, this school of thought seems quite rightly to have run its course. We’ve been saturated with sexual advertising for years now, and the simple fact is that it doesn’t have this effect. Besides, we’ve long since cottoned on to the beautifying powers of Photoshop.

The latest research suggests that inappropriate use of sexy advertising is likely to backfire:

“A recent University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favorably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products. This study agrees with the data David Ogilvy accumulated over his long and storied career in advertising. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, he says that sex sells only if it is relevant to the subject being sold.Ira Kalb – “Do You Think Sex Sells? Think Again”

Our first conclusion, then, is that sexy sells if you’re selling sexy products. If you’re not, it’s likely to be an ineffective strategy. Does sexy actually sell? Probably not. 

Sexy Sells: Learning From the Best Shopify Stores

What, then, is the right approach for businesses who aren’t selling sexy products? We can get a lot of answers by looking at some of the best Shopify stores to see what sets them apart from the crowd.

It’s important to understand that sexy isn’t just about sex. The reason that sexy images draw our attention is that people are inherently visual creatures. We are attracted by beautiful images. The important distinction to be made is that we can do sexy advertising without using sexy images.

What do we mean by this? Well, there are all sorts of things that we refer to as sexy.

Car enthusiasts might refer to a car as sexy. We talk about sexy dresses, phones, kitchens, gadgets and HiFi. In fact, almost any product can be sexy. It’s not always about sex; sexy is a byword for desirability.

Definition of Sexy

We need to broaden our understanding of what sexy images look like. The best Shopify stores know this. E-Commerce stores sell best when they appeal to customers on a visual basis.

The goods news is that sexy – in the broader sense of the word – can be a feature of every Shopify website. In fact, it should be. Online stores sell best when they appeal to customers on a visual basis.

How are the best Shopify stores sexy? Broadly speaking, they redefine the conventional understanding of what ‘sexy’ should look like and integrate the following features:

  • Beautiful, engaging imagery that draws the eye and captures attention
  • High quality design that complements the products that are being sold
  • Site-wide harmony between imagery, design and functionality
  • The ability to show customers how their lives will improve if they buy these particular products

Here are some examples of the best Shopify stores – which understood and apply the importance and power of stunning imagery. These are all excellent alternatives to using ‘sexy’ advertising in the traditional sense that we’ve explored above.

1. Fifty Three – Beautifully Simple

The Fifty Three Paper Shopify Store is one of the Best Shopify Stores

It’s no secret that Fifty Three have one of the best Shopify stores. Again, it’s an incredibly simple site that is remarkably engaging and absolutely beautiful. Their use of video and animation is extremely compelling.

One of the things that we love about Fifty Three is that they make everyday items so desirable. Paper and Pencils are not normally considered sexy. However, the innovative design and beautifully simple products are about as intriguing as anything you can buy online.

2. Studio Neat – Sexy Design

Studio Neat Sexy Shopify Design

Studio Neat are a fascinating company. They describe themselves as making “great and useful products”, but a quick look at their site shows that they sell a wide range of apparently unrelated products. Their products include iPhone accessories, syrup making kits and tools for making ice for cocktails.

Everything that Studio Neat make features sexy design. It really is compelling. You’ll notice that their imagery – all of which is outstanding – includes both in-context and pure product photography. This is very clever. It gives the customer an accurate indication of what they’re purchasing and shows them how it will enhance their life in real terms.

The products, website and branding are all beautifully designed; no stone is left unturned. This is a real example of how sexy design helps to sell your products and set you apart as one of the best Shopify stores.

3. Daily Burn – Healthy, Clean and Fresh

Daily Burn Best Shopify Stores

The Daily Burn site is a real beauty. Again, the site features outstanding product photography which features alongside lifestyle photography.

It all looks very simple, but it’s a beautifully designed site. It’s effortlessly gender-neutral, something which many health and supplement stores fail to achieve.

The images really do communicate a compelling vision of what a healthy lifestyle looks like. Unlike businesses who use sexy images as clickbait for unrelated products, the Daily Burn site is nicely balanced.

4. Not Just Pretty – Pretty Sexy

Not Just Pretty Best Shopify Stores

Not Just Pretty are a Canadian fashion retailer with a modern, ethical twist. Their site communicates this beautifully, with compelling use of big photography on the homepage and an uncluttered use of product photography throughout the site.

It’s a feminine, attractive site that shows off the company’s products in a very positive light. It’s tasteful, pretty and fresh. This is another site which integrates Instagram nicely into the body of the site.

Conclusion: Does Sexy Actually Sell? Sometimes…

Having picked out a small handful of the best Shopify stores it’s clear that exceptional image quality is a vital characteristic of a successful E-Commerce store.

However, it’s not quite as simple as “sexy sells”.

Yes, there are a number of Shopify stores selling sexy products. However, for the vast majority of store owners the real challenge is getting the very best photography that you can afford. Sexual imagery is likely to have a harmful impact on companies selling non-sexy products.

If you’re running a Shopify store we’d encourage you to make your store as appealing and appropriate as possible. As our 10 highlighted stores show, there are numerous ways to include sexy images in a tasteful and compelling way.

Finally: The Problem with Picking a Sexy Shopify Theme

A final thought – that may warrant a whole article in the near future – is that it’s incredibly difficult to choose a Shopify theme. This is because sexy images are used to sell themes too, not just products.

You can’t really blame the designers, of course. Yes, sexy imagery is unlikely to be relevant to the majority of Shopify store owners. However, the kind of sexy imagery that we’re advocating – fresh, compelling, attractive images – is a great way to show what a store is capable of.

The problem is that it can lead to disappointment for store owners.

This was a talking point in a December podcast featuring Gavin Ballard. He argues very persuasively that store owners should be more concerned about conversion rate optimisation than choosing a sexy Shopify theme:

“It’s not the sexy things that you think of… sadly that’s what a lot of themes that are sold for Shopify are sold on… big fancy full-screen images… the reality is that the thing that your store needs to do is make it easy for customers to get from whatever page they land on with your products in their cart

Written by EcommerceRVW
EcommerceRVW is a dedicated Ecommerce Blog bringing you regular ecommerce articles, reviews, case studies and guides. We're passionate about helping ambitious store owners take their business to the next level.