While the adage ‘sex sells’ has become virtually synonymous with advertising, research coming out of the American Psychological Association suggests this isn’t actually the case.
The study Do sex and violence sell? A meta-analytic review of the effects of sexual and violent media and ad content on memory, attitudes and buying intentions found brands that advertised with violent and sexualised content were remembered less often and looked on less favourably.
“We found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness,” said Brad J. Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, and a co-author on the study.
“In general, we found violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decreased advertising effectiveness.”
The second co-author Robert B. Lull added it’s not because people aren’t attracted to sex and violence, “on the contrary, people have been attracted to sex and violence since evolutionary times, when attending to violent cues prevented our ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators and paying attention to sexual cues attuned our ancestors to potential reproductive opportunities.”
Taking a look at violent and sexual content in the media – which includes violent/sexual TV programs, movie, games etc – Lull and Bushman determined advertisers believe sex and violence sells, so buy prime time ad spots during programs with high sexual and violent content. And subsequently, producers continue to produce the intense content as it attracts the ad dollars.
According to the study, gun violence in movies rated PG13 (PG in Australia) have more than tripled since 1985, and many of the top selling games, movies and TV shows were rated on the basis of violent content and sexual content.
“Overall, these percentages suggest that almost half of the most popular shows, films, and games contain violence, and more than a quarter contain sex,” said the report. “Therefore, insofar as a larger audience leads to more exposure for the product and thus more potential customers, advertising in violent and sexual media may provide advertisers the exposure they seek.”
However, the results from the study concluded violent media content “impairs brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions”, which means brands who advertise within violent programs, games, movies etc end up on the periphery of the program, not at the forefront of the consumer’s mind. Whereas no violent media content means “individuals can focus attention on the central and peripheral cues in the advertisement”.
Similarly, in terms of sexual content in advertising, brands who upped the raunchiness were looked on “less favourably” than those who took the safer route. However, the authors noted there were no statistically significant effects for advertising during highly sexualised media content.
The study used 53 different experiments and 8489 participants during 2014 to come to its conclusions. The study was published online on July 20, 2015.
Bushman added: “Our findings have tremendous applied significance, especially for advertisers. Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes and buying intentions for advertised products.