Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sex appeals increasingly used to sell plastic surgery

Want to look and feel sexier? Consider plastic surgery.

According to a recent study published in 2011, this is the message physicians are increasingly using to promote cosmetic surgery. In fact, some of the most invasive procedures--breast augmentation and liposuction-- are more likely to include sex appeals compared to noninvasive procedures. The lead author and primary contributor was University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Heidi Hennink-Kaminski. The study appeared in the journal Sexuality & Culture. I know this study fairly well because I am a coauthor.

Dr. Hennink-Kaminski trained coders to examine 2,400 cosmetic surgery ads in big-market city magazines published over a 20 year period; from 1986 to 2007. Overall, 20% of the ads contained a sexual appeal but three times as many sexual ads appeared in the second decade (1997-2007).

Sexual appeals are more likely to emphasize the sexual enhancement of one's self-esteem (e.g., "feel sexier"). A little over a third of sexual appeals emphasize enhanced sexual attractiveness, and about 10% of ads make the claim, either implicitly or explicitly, that increased sexual behavior is an outcome of cosmetic surgery (e.g., "more sex/better sex").

It should come as no surprise that women--many of them partially dressed or naked--appear in 97% of the sexual ads. Given the target audience these ads are not designed to promote sexual arousal but are designed to serve as aspirational and instructional, with sexual behavior and feelings used as reasons for considering a cosmetic procedure.

There are plenty of implications. For one, should an emotion-based appeal such as sex be used to sell surgery? Doing so certainly violates norms within the medical community that advertising should be limited to information about the practice, not compelling emotional benefits. Please comment about implications you feel are important.

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