Does Sex and Violence Really Sell Products?

How sex and violence in commercials can backfire for advertisers.

Posted Jul 27, 2015

Ninety-eight percent of American homes have TV sets, which means the people in the other 2% have to generate their own sex and violence.  George Baylos

Why is there so much sex and violence in movies and television?  While American television and movies are far less likely to allow actual nudity than other countries, jokes and innuendos about human sexuality are a common feature despite attempts at censoring sexually explicit content.  Media studies report that well over half of all television shows contain sexual references that are meant to titillate and attract viewers.  

Despite this flood of sexual content, there are still curious inconsistencies surrounding the sexual messages that we often see. Certainly advertisers have no problem using sex to sell everything from shampoo to hotel rooms but we are far more likely to see commercials about Viagra than birth control.   This seems like a sad state of affairs considering the popularity of "abstinence-only" programs in many parts of the country and the total refusal of many parents to provide their children with sex education information.

And then there is the violence that seems to be a major feature in most movies and television programs.  On average, children from two to eleven will spend twenty to thirty hours a week in front of a television set and this still doesn't allow for the time spent playing video games or watching movies.  Media research suggests that children will seen an average of 200,000 violent crimes and 16,000 murders by the age of eighteen.   In fact, shows aimed at children are often more violent than adult oriented television though the question of whether violent content in the media leads to violence in children is still controversial.

Whatever your views on sex and violence on television and movies, the widespread belief that sex and violence will sell products helps explain why this kind of media programming is so popular.  As former CBS and NBC programming president Jeff Sagansky once pointed out, “The number one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers. We aren’t going to get rid of violence until we get rid of advertisers”  Among the twenty-five most expensive television programs for advertisers in the 2014-2015 season, forty-four were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for violence and forty percent were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for sex.    

Advertisers typically gear their commercials towards the 18-34 age group since they tend to be the ones with the largest disposable income.  Many advertisers also prefer to gear their advertising message towards younger adults since they are seen as being more easily influenced by commercials (as opposed to older adults who have established buying habits).   For this reason, movies and shows with strong sexual and violent content continue to attract sponsors since they appeal to a key marketing demographic.  That the commercials themselves often contain sex or violence is seen to make good business sense as a result.  

But how effective are these kind of advertisements in terms of actually affecting the buying decisions of the people watching them?  Does sex and violence really sell?  Research studies looking at the effects of advertising in film, television, and video games suggest that running ads in shows featuring sex and violence or including sexual or violent content in the ads themselves are not effective marketing strategies.  Not only do people watching these shows tend not to recall the brand names of the products advertised,  these kind of ads often lead to them deciding not to buy the product because of how they view the ads.

A new review article published in Psychological Bulletin takes a comprehensive look at the effectiveness of sex and violence in advertising.   Robert B. Lull and Brad Bushman of Ohio State University examined the results of 53 research studies examining the impact of sexual or violent content on  the over 8,000 participants involved.    Lull and Bushman combined the different studies done over the past four decades into a single meta-analysis to weigh the effectiveness of sex, violence, or both on whether participants later decided to buy the products advertised, their memory for the brand name involved, or their attitudes towards the different products. 

Based on their findings, Lull and Bushman came up with the following conclusions:

  • Advertisements featuring violent media content or running in shows that are extremely violent often backfire as far as advertisers are concerned.   People watching this kind of programming usually focus their attention on the violence they are watching which makes them less likely to remember additional details such as brand name.  This is consistent with the emotional arousal model of memory which suggests that we are especially attuned to emotionally arousing cues with less important details being overlooked. 
  • Sexual content doesn't appear to be that effective either in terms of actual value for the money advertisers spend.  Brands that use sexual content are often judged more harshly than brands that run nonsexual ads.   Not only are people watching these ads less likely to remember the brand name, but they are often less likely to purchase the advertised product afterward   This may be partly due to the emotionalyl arousing effect of the ads though the impact doesn’t appear as great as with violent ads.
  • Ads with sexual or violent content are more likely to be effective when they are run on shows that match the content.   In other words, violent ads work better when they are run on shows that are violent as well and sexual ad content works the same way.   In describing this effect, Lull and Bushman suggest that sexual or violent programs make it easier to remember sexual or violent ads. 
  • People watching these kind of ads may have become more desensitized to the content over the years.   Sexual or violent content appears far less effective in recent years than they did twenty years ago.  The earliest study covered in the meta-analysis was from 1969 and the effect size was far larger than a more recent study carried out in 2011.   hough it is probably too soon to argue that real desensitization has taken place, this change over time is definitely interesting.
  • Age is definitely a factor with older people being more likely to be offended by sexual or violent content, especially if it’s in a commercial run on a show that isn’t sexual or violent in itself.   If anything, these kind of commercials would make them less likely to buy the product advertised.   Gender also comes into play with males being more likely to watch violent programs and to be influenced by violent ads. 

So what are the practical implications of this study?  According to the study authors, advertising in violent shows or running ads featuring violent content doesn’t appear to particularly effective in terms of promoting brands or encouraging viewers to buy the products.   Though similar findings were found for sexual content, the effect size wasn’t as great as with violent media.  

Even though skeptics might argue that violent or sexual television shows, video games, or movies still draw large audiences and provide good media exposure, Lull and Bushman suggest that the actual return on investment for advertisers simply doesn’t justify spending the extra money on advertising space on these kind of programs.

There may also  be cultural differences at work however.  All of the studies included in this meta-analysis came either from the United States, Canada, or Western European countries so it isn’t entirely clear whether the same results apply in other cultures.   Many countries have different standards about how much sex and violence is permissible so it may not be possible to make direct comparisons in terms of what kind of ads are effective. Future research will likely be needed to take culture differences into account.

Advertisers seem to be slowly getting the message, though.   When Gatorade ran ad campaigns using non-violent video games, their sales went up by twenty-four percent.  Internal research conducted by Wal-Mart found that running ads on family-friendly shows perform eighteen percent better than similar ads on shows with graphic sex and violence.  

While sex and violence are hardly likely to disappear from movie and television screens, advertisers will need to be more careful about the kind of commercials they run and the kind of programming they choose to run them in.  How Hollywood will deal with this newfound reluctance should be interesting to see.

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