A recent study about violence and sex in TV advertising got a fair amount of press. “Violence and sex don’t sell,” the headlines proclaimed. If such a claim is true, it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the blusterings of ad agencies worldwide.
Advertisers have always used the idea that “sex sells” to generate interest in their products, and television networks have argued that they need to offer lots of violence and sex in their programming in order to attract viewers. But what if sex and violence don’t really sell products? Doesn’t that turn the whole notion of “sex sells” on its head?
We’ve taken a look at the study, by Brad Bushman and published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science, and the answer to that question seems to be “sort of.” Bushman studied 336 adults in central Iowa by showing them violent, sexy, or neutral TV programming (some of the programs included 24 and Cops [violent], Sex in the City and Will and Grace [sexy], and America’s Funniest Animals and Trading Spaces [neutral]). Each program contained the same 12 commercials. The commercials were chosen from a selection of products that were relatively unfamiliar to the study group: “Senokot Natural Vegetable Laxative,” “Nutra Nails,” and so on.
The goal of the study was to see if different types of programming correlated to the effectiveness of the advertisements. After watching the programs, participants were asked which of the advertised products they could recall, which brands they recognized from a multiple-choice quiz, which they planned to buy, and finally they were given their choice of ten $1 coupons from a set of 40, including the 12 they had seen advertised. All the coupons were actually fakes, but participants believed that they could use the coupons to get real store discounts. Here’s a summary of the results:
The chart indicates that sex and violence in the surrounding TV program do indeed affect how well viewers recall the brands in the ads. People who watched programs with sex and/or violence recognized significantly fewer brands and chose significantly fewer coupons from the advertised brands. Viewers of sexy, but not of violent, shows recalled significantly fewer brands than viewers of neutral shows.
Bushman argues that if advertisers would refuse to buy advertising on shows with sexual/violent content, they could help their own bottom lines because the ads on these shows don’t sell as well. Society would be helped because violent/sexy shows would soon be removed from the air due to financial insolvency — and violent programming is associated with aggressive behavior while sexually explicit shows can lead to anti-social sexual attitudes.
Are Bushman’s far-reaching conclusions merited? Assuming the price for advertising during violent/sexy programming is the same as for neutral programs, perhaps they are. But this single study can’t be taken as a refutation of the mantra that “sex sells.” For one thing, the study doesn’t consider sexual and/or violent content in the ads themselves. Bushman suggests that one reason ads are less effective during violent or sexy programming is that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the sexual/violent content. Wouldn’t sexy/violent ads also draw viewers’ attention? If so, would these ads be more effective in the context of sexy/violent shows, or neutral shows?
And what if advertisers did begin to flee from violent/sexual programming? Would more viewers be drawn to the few such shows that remained? Might some advertisers not still be willing to pay to reach the large audiences for these shows? If so, then Bushman’s ideal of a sex- and violence-free media would never be attained.
Nonetheless, Bushman’s research does suggest that advertisers, media outlets, and consumers should be aware that mantras such as “sex sells” almost certainly oversimplify the issue.
Bushman, B.J. (2005). Violence and sex in television programs do not sell products in advertisements. Psychological Science, 16(9), 702-708.