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Sex and Brands

According to recent data, Americans are having less sex. They're also having fewer children. What does it mean for marketers?

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Let’s talk about sex.

Actually, let’s talk about the fact that Americans are having less sex. A study reported in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior earlier this year found that Americans who were married or living together had sex 16 fewer times in 2010-2014 vs. the same interval of time in 2000-2004.

The trend is not isolated to those who are partnered. The 2017 edition of the General Social Survey, which is a nationally representative study of 26,707 Americans fielded by San Diego State University, found that young Millennials are considerably less sexually active than their Gen X predecessors. 15% of those age 20-24 reported that they had no sexual partners since the age of 18. Compare that stat to the smaller 6% of Gen Xers who reported the same in previous waves of the study.

Studies evaluating sexual health are tricky. It’s a taboo subject and many people are uncomfortable answering questions about their sexual activities, leading to a wide variety of survey errors that can both under and over-state real behavior. But several studies are corroborating changes in attitudes and behaviors about sex, and these shifts have significant implications for marketers and entrepreneurs.

Before you rush out to start a business or campaign catering to abstinence or a culture of prudes, realize the findings are actually quite complex. “Millennials are more accepting of premarital sex than any previous generation, yet have had fewer sexual partners than GenX'ers. This is consistent with their image as a tolerant, individualistic generation accepting others' choices and making their own,” said Jean M. Twenge, one of the lead researchers on the San Diego State study.

Indeed, sexual tolerance and experimentation appears to be at an all-time high. In data published last year by Indiana University (home of the infamous Kinsey Institute), 41 sexual practices are now deemed “normal” by respondents. And, while only 7% of respondents identified as “other than heterosexual,” about 15% reported a sexual history that included activity with a same-sex partner.

What does this mean for marketers? For starters, it means the playbook is changing. We’ve all heard the adage that “sex sells.” There’s no reason to believe this is becoming less so, but sexing up the brand may not be the effective blunt instrument that it once was. Younger consumer segments appear to have a more nuanced and diverse relationship with sexual narratives and themes. It’s not that you might offend them. It’s more than you might fail to grab their attention at all.

There are many explanations for the shift in mindset, including ubiquitous access to pornography, concerns about personal health and safety, an increased incidence of living with parents, and the widespread adoption of mobile technology. Yes, you read that right. Hookup apps and sexting may actually lead to less sex, at least in the form that actually ensures the survival of our species. Several researchers posit that digital interaction is muscling in on real human-to-human interaction.

But there’s another dimension of this trend that should concern marketers. Last year the CDC reported the lowest birth rate since the agency began tracking America’s procreative output back in 1909. The current rate stands at 59.8 births per 1,000 women, measured in the first quarter of 2016. Overall, the US birthrate has declined by 10% since 2007.

Again, the factors leading to the results are complex, with more women waiting longer to have children and with birth control now prevalent and normalized. The good news is that teen pregnancy rates are at record lows, and teen condom use is at an all-time high (80% for boys 14-17).

There may be no link between our shifting attitudes toward sex and a decline in national fertility, but if you’re a toymaker or a brand that specializes in families and children, you may want to consider upcoming share shifts in the domestic marketplace.

I’m fascinated by the data in the context of the broader cultural landscape. In previous eras of political discord and clashing value systems, sex proved to be a prominent outlet. The 60s and 70s ushered in a sexual revolution that culminated in the “free love” movement and, not so coincidentally, the highest divorce rate in US history. While the current climate doesn’t appear to be a repressive retreat, it is perhaps a shift toward asexualism—a notion that feels absurd given the overt references to sex that saturate our media, especially in comparison to the media landscape just 40 years ago.

Sex still has selling power, but the way we incorporate sexual themes needs to evolve. Brands can still seduce us. They can still stimulate our hedonistic tendencies. And some brands can continue to promise us a more effective path to the bedroom if we make them our own. Yet all of these brands will have to recognize that sex, for many consumers, is not the end-all, be-all of our daily fantasy life. The world of Austin Powers, in which every path leads to a shag, is a less aspirational lifestyle than it once was. In its place Millennials (particularly younger Millennials who are now in their 20s) are gravitating toward a slightly more pragmatic mindset, in which sex is nice, but only in the context of the omni-present work-life balance and the inward search for greater meaning in daily life.


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