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.
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. This applies to the vast majority of Shopify stores.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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:
1. Black Milk – Effortlessly Sexy
Black Milk started out in 2009 and are one of the biggest and best Shopify success stories. Their website is incredibly simple, with a monochrome black and white design.
The reason that Black Milk have one of the best Shopify stores is quite simply their outstanding product photography. It’s incredibly fun, fresh and engaging. Yes, they have a completely unique product, but the quality and style of their images is extremely powerful. The fact Black Milk have built a multi-million dollar store without spending anything on marketing tells you a lot about the quality of their products and service.
Because their imagery is so engaging Black Milk have simultaneously managed to amass a huge Instagram following – 988,000 at the time of writing – which is worth a small fortune in marketing terms. The way that they’ve integrated Instagram into their website is also excellent. After all, if you’ve got all those high quality images sitting on your hard-drive then you might as well make use of them.
Black Milk’s photo inventory is so attractive that they’ve been able to sell it to other Shopify theme developers for use in the Shopify theme store.
2. Fifty Three – Beautifully Simple
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.
3. SummerLove Swimwear – Sexy Sells
SummerLove Swimwear are clearly subscribers to the “sexy sells” mantra. However, as we’ve discussed above, when you’re selling sexy products then this is likely to have a positive impact on your sales. The fact that they’re selling swimwear means that it’s much more appropriate to have this kind of image on their site and in their advertising.
In terms of the website, it’s another incredibly simple Shopify store with lots of whitespace and big photography. The menu and navigation options are pretty small, which means that you’re more likely to click on an image to find out more.
4. Twelve Saturdays – Intelligently Sexy
The Twelve Saturdays site is much more heavily stylized than the three listed above. It’s heavily dependent upon effective navigation; users choose their university to reveal custom products.
It’s interesting that Twelve Saturdays have chosen a much more down-to-earth style of product photography. We like the use of Facebook and Pinterest buttons on each photo. Bearing in mind the Twelve Saturdays business model – connecting with users from particular universities – this is very savvy. It offers the potential for free, highly-targeted advertising.
It’s also a well-known fact that we’re much more drawn to the colours of our favourite team; we tend to find them sexier. This is a very intelligent site that clearly understands the psyche of its customers.
5. Studio Neat – Sexy 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.
6. Litter – Uniquely Sexy
Like many of the best Shopify stores, Litter is a relatively young business that has experienced rapid growth. Starting from one unique product in 2009, the company now sell an innovative range of clothing and jewellery.
Much like the Black Milk site, Litter have a very simple website design that is heavily dependent upon imagery. They have clearly invested heavily in the quality of their product photography. Even a quick look at the best Shopify stores makes it clear that high quality product photography is an essential step in security E-Commerce success.
Litter are unashamedly unique. In their own words, “it may not be for everyone, and that’s just the way we want to keep it“. We love the alternative style of their images.
7. Daily Burn – Healthily Sexy
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. It’s healthily sexy.
8. Hotsy Totsy – Restrained Sexy
Hotsy Totsy are a jewellery seller with a classy, composed website. It’s sexy, but in a restrained way. The homepage features a model wearing the company’s products, but the rest of the site is limited to product photography with lots of whitespace.
It’s a classy, refreshing alternative to the overtly sexual imagery used by some jewellery sellers. Unlike lingerie, for example, jewellery isn’t necessarily a sexy product. It’s worn by people of all ages, and would arguably be a contender for suffering the adverse implications of a “sexy sells” philosophy.
9. Not Just Pretty – Pretty Sexy
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.
10. Five AM – Boudoir Sexy
The Five AM site is a Shopify store which uses sexy images to sell sexy products. There is a range of product photography and in-context imagery, and this is yet another Shopify site to successfully integrate an Instagram feed. With clean design and a strong personality, this is one of the best ‘conventionally sexy’ Shopify stores.
Conclusion: Sexy Sells, Sometimes
Having picked out 10 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”