Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


Moore School of Business

First Advisor

Stacy Wood


Marketers frequently use provocative tactics in order to capture consumers' interest in brands, products, and messages. Often, advertisements depict attractive, sexually suggestive models even when the image has little to do with the product message. Retail settings are also engineered to utilize attractive sales associates. Importantly, research demonstrates that incidental exposure to such sexual stimuli lead male consumers to choose smaller, more immediate rewards and to spend more of their resources to signal social status. Marketers might look at these effects and see them as evidence of the old business adage, 'Sex Sells.' This adage is consistent with a reward sensitive perspective from psychology and neuroscience: attractive individuals of the opposite sex increase status signaling through motivation for reward. However, both advertisements and retail environments contain more complex (i.e., heterogeneous) social groups. It is unclear how same-sex presences may impact status and reward seeking behavior.

Drawing upon theory from biology and psychology, we examine the effects of sex ratios in ads (ratio of opposite to same sex stimuli) and propose a ratio sensitive reward model, which suggests that status signaling increases as the ratio becomes more competitive. Data from six behavioral studies support the ratio sensitive reward model for both male and female participants: advertisements containing intrasexual competition increase status signaling (price willing-to-pay, product preference, and conspicuous social risk taking) in comparison to those containing only the opposite sex. Finally, we utilize NeuroEconomic theory and methods to develop a novel functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm to examine how the presence of competition modulates the brain's encoding of reward value (i.e., desirability) in the Nucleus Accumbens. Activation increases in the Accumbens during the viewing of attractive, opposite sex faces when perceived in proximity to competition. Overall, the results demonstrate both the effects of heterogeneous social group composition on consumer behavior and the neural reward system's contextual sensitivity.