CX Insights

The Vampire Effect: Sucking attention away from content

4 min read

Senior drama critic at The New Yorker John Lahr once exclaimed:

“Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising”

Does this craziness translate into sales? Can sexual stimuli interfere with the effectiveness of an ad? After all, most of us like to look at sexy models in sexy lingerie, don’t we? Let me show you how a remote test can shed light on these questions.

Lavazza's titillating ad

The Vampire Effect

I had never thought about the effectiveness of sexy images in ads before reading Martin Lindstrom’s book “Buy-ology: Truth and lies about why we buy”. An excellent read, full of riveting stories on how the brain, brands and emotions drive consumer choice. By blending marketing and neuroscience, Martin Lindstorm explains to the reader why do we often act so irrationally when we buy. Why, what we say contradicts what we do, and how an fMRI scanner can record these mismatches on the brain.

In this post, we’re focusing on The Vampire Effect. The term was coined after a study conducted by MediaAnalyzer Software & Research, which results concluded that “titillating content was sucking attention away from what the ad was actually trying to say”. So while our attention may be focused towards sexual content, consciously we are less able to absorb anything past this. In short, people exposed to ads with beautiful bodies and sexy poses get numb, zombies!

Testing the images

An intriguing story and theory that monopolized the conversation, during a lunch break at Usabilla. Hence, to test the Vampire Effect myself, I set up a quick and dirty Usabilla test. I first selected two advertisements (a bland and a sexy one) for two competing coffee brands, Illy and Lavazza.

Illy's serious and bland ad Lavazza's titillating, spicy ad

Next, I created a Usabilla test and coupled it with a Google Docs survey form. In the test I asked participants to click on the things that draw their attention the most, and right after I asked them if they still remembered the brand and what their sex is. Once I was ready, I tweeted the URL of the survey, and recruited participants. In total 108 people participated, good enough to test if the principle works: I don’t aim to be published in an academic publication, after all. This was all setup in less than ten minutes.

ParticipantsIlly Test VisitorsLavazza Test
Total50 (100%)58 (100%)
Male37 (74%)39 (67%)
Female13 (26%)19 (33%)

Recruited participants via Twitter

Dumbfounded by the results

The results flabbergasted me. 96% of the participants remembered the Illy brand after seeing the ad, in contrast to only 50% for the Lavazza ad. While the Lavazza ad is a very appealing, smart and creative ad, it proved not to be effective. A couple of seconds after seeing the ad, half of the people didn’t recall the name of the brand.

ParticipantsIlly Test VisitorsLavazza Test
Don’t know /Don’t Remember2%43%

Results on the question: So, do you still remember the brand?

The following heatmaps show the emergence of each ad’s hot spots (click to enlarge).

Heatmap on Illy's ad Heatmap on Lavazza's ad

The effect of Lavazza’s ad

Participants got stupefied by the surreal image of a seductive stewardess spilling coffee on the trousers of a charming man, and trying to clean it while spouse and dog bark. The sexually suggestive material blinded both men (54%) and women (42%) to all the other information in the ad – even the name of the product itself.

The Vampire Effect - Lavazza's logo
Only 7% of the participants clicked on the Lavazza logo
The Vampire Effect - Lavazza's ad
65% clicked on the spilled coffee
The Vampire Effect - Lavazza's ad - sexy stimuli
and 86% of the participants were attracted by the beautiful stewardess.

The effect of Illy’s ad

In the contrary, Illy scored almost the absolute (96%) with a bland but effective picture of a shiny espresso machine and the message “Discover the extraordinary pleasure of illycafe”. As you can see from the heatmaps, participants mostly clicked on the Illy logo, the bold illycafe and the iconic Illy cup. The message was spread, and people could recall the brand.

The Vampire Effect - Illy's ad - logo
65% of the participants clicked on the Illy logo
The Vampire Effect - Illy's ad - tagline
61% clicked on the Illy tagline and the bold illycafe.
The Vampire Effect - Illy's ad - iconic cup
and 41% clicked on the iconic Illy espresso cup.


Of course, there are a number of limitations to this short study to distill a general truth. Such as the design of the ad itself, the placement of the logo, brand awareness, the times the viewer is exposed to an ad, and so forth… The purpose of this study was not to come up with an absolute truth, but rather to see how easy it is to test some theories and principles. In less than an hour, I had a bunch of data that were shaping a pattern validating my initial hypothesis that participants will get distracted from the sexy ad and forget the brand.

Surprising how strong the effect is, don’t you think? Why don’t you give it a try yourself and sign up for a free Usabilla account to test your own hypothesis?

Did you enjoy the post? Don’t forget to retweet it ;)

Loucas Papantoniou
Usability Analyst @ Usabilla Jack of all trades, immersing passionately and sometimes obsessively in my interests. Greek living in A'dam, missing the sun.