The Transmutability of Desire

Desire can change from one object to another

YOU are most likely familiar with the marketing adage, “Sex sells”.

The concept is a fairly simple one. Sex is a topic of interest because humans have a biological and instinctive desire to reproduce. This hard-wired desire is exploited by marketers to attract people’s attention and, at the same time, market whatever they are selling.

An interesting feature of sex in advertising is that there is often no relationship between the images used (e.g. a buxom young woman) and the product being sold (e.g. an energy drink).

If there is no logical connection between the images and the product, then how does sex actually help sell the product?

There are two ways to think about the influential power of sex in advertising.

1. Gaining attention

Provocative images attract attention. This helps marketers sell products because it is difficult to sell a product that everyone ignores. That being said, just because people see an advertisement doesn’t mean that they will be convinced to buy the product.

Getting attention is only the first step.

2. Arousing desire

Using sex in advertising can help to stimulate desire in the minds of consumers. You might think of desire as a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. A man who sees a picture of a buxom young woman might desire what he sees.

For women, attraction is often based on different criteria like commitment, trust and social status. And so, an advertisement aimed at women might look like the one on the left.

The question is, if a marketer can stimulate desire for one thing (e.g. romance on horseback), how does that help the marketer create desire for something completely unrelated (e.g. Ralph Lauren perfume)?

Making a person desire one object can lead them to desire another unrelated object due to the principle of “desire transmutation”. Desire exists in the mind of consumers. Products themselves are not inherently desirable. You only have to look at Apple products from the 80’s to see that products which people believed were desirable at the time are no longer desirable. Each time Apple launches a new product, the Apple marketing machine (and previously the influence of the great Steve Jobs) swings into full gear to fan the flames of desire in the minds of its loyal customers.

Since desire is a state of mind, once a marketer creates desire in the mind of a consumer, this desire can easily be changed from one object to another, from one product to the next. This is the principle of desire transmutation. And it explains why the desire for a buxom young woman can sell energy drinks, and the desire for romance on horseback can sell expensive perfume.

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2 Replies to “The Transmutability of Desire”

  1. I think the psychological principle that these ads rely on primarily is association just rather than desire. They want you to association a certain product with a certain lifestyle. Hot girls, beaches = billabong etc.

  2. James,

    Good comment.

    For the perfume ad, you have a point. Ralph Lauren are building an image (or brand) which they want you to associate with their product. For their target consumers it is a desirable image, which makes the product itself desirable because it allows women to buy into that image.

    It may be a subtle point, but the image Ralph Lauren is creating and the product they are selling are two separate things. If the customer wants romance and therefore buys the perfume then what does the customer get? They get the perfume and not the romance.

    This is an example of desire transmutation. The customer started out wanting one thing and, as if by magic, ended up wanting something else.

    You might argue that the perfume helps women attract men, which increases the chance of romance. This may be true. However, the functional properties of the perfume cannot be determined by looking at the ad. Also, I have never heard of a woman asking for research backed evidence that a perfume can successfully attract charming young men before making a purchase. Everyday women successfully attract men. And they succeed in this task whether or not they are wearing Ralph Lauren perfume.

    For the energy drink ad, I disagree with you. I think the ad is merely designed to hold your attention and make you desire what you see.

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