The Grapevine

Sex Sells — Or Does It? Study Finds Sex And Violence Don't Actually Contribute To Effective Advertising

Sex Sells
Do sexy or violent ads really boost sales? Andrew Dallos CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sex sells. If it bleeds, it leads. The cliché mantras that have dominated U.S. marketing and media are just as shameless as the mediums they promote. The idea is simple: The shocking and the obscene will always entice the public. Whether it’s getting readers to buy a newspaper with a blaring headline about murder, an attractive model hocking a product totally unrelated to sexuality, or a weird combination of both sex and violence (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades), it seems these catchy sayings have some truth to them.

At least, advertisers and marketing teams think they do. When it comes to facts and research, evidence supporting the idea that advertising seeped in sex and violence is more effective is spotty at best. A new study provides some of the most convincing evidence yet suggesting that these widely accepted adages aren’t true.

Conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, the study analyzed 53 different experiments spanning 44 years. This meta-analysis involved almost 8,500 people, and included studies that all looked at various aspects of sex and violence affecting the sale of advertised products. Considering results from all of the studies, the general conclusion was that programs featuring sex and violence are not the ideal medium for effective advertising.

The study involved a wide variety of types of media, including print, television, movies, and even video games. The studies all examined the effect of sex or violence on brand memory, brand attitudes, and the audience’s intention to buy the product being advertised. The experiments included those in which the ad itself contained sex or violence, or only the surrounding media contained the content in question.

When it came to simply remembering the brand, programs containing sex, violence, or both significantly impaired brand memory for the products advertised among the graphic content. People also had overall less favorable attitudes toward brands advertised in media containing sex or violence. To round out the results concerning media content, people also reported less intention to buy brands advertised amid content containing sex and violence.

But what about ads that incorporated sex and violence themselves? Results here were not so clear-cut—leading to some interesting conclusions about the way we process sex and violence instinctively.

Overall, there was no significant memory impairment for brands that used sex and violence in their advertisements. Intention to buy the brand was also seemingly unaffected, though attitudes toward brands that utilized sex and violence were more negative than attitudes toward brands that utilized more neutral advertising techniques.

Though the overarching conclusions are pretty clear, several nuances were identified by the researchers.

Firstly, if the content of the program and advertising matched, memory and buying intention for the product were both improved.

“If a TV program prompts violent or sexual thoughts, an ad that prompts similar thoughts will be better remembered,” said Robert Lull, the co-author of the study who just earned his Ph.D. in Communication from Ohio State.

When it came to sexual content in particular, the level and intensity of the sexual content had a direct association with attitudes and likeliness to buy the product. The more sexual the advertisement, the less favorable audiences were toward the brand.

Demographics also saw some differences in results — older people were less likely to report intent to buy a product advertised with sex or violence than younger people, and men were more likely to suffer from brand memory impairment when watching media content or ads containing sexual imagery.

What Does All This Mean?

Reading these results, one might be tempted to believe that people don’t pay attention to sex and violence in the media. In reality, the complete opposite is true, and that’s the problem when it comes to advertising.

“People are so focused on the sex and violence they see in the media that they pay less attention to the advertising messages that appear along with it,” Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University said in a press release. “Advertisers shouldn’t be so sure that sex and violence can help them sell their products.”

This theory aligns with the results showing memory was not impaired in people watching advertisements that contained sex and violence. The audience’s attention was caught by the sex and violence featured in the ad, but the intention to buy the product was unaffected. People may remember and talk about these ads because of flashy content, leading us to believe that sex or violence was more successful in advertising the product. When it comes down to it, though, advertising’s end goal is to sell a product, not just get people to remember it.

Our evolutionary tendency to be distracted by sex and violence perhaps also explains why the media continues to use graphic and shocking stories as the top stories they choose to share with the public. While sex and violence in an advertisement failed to have an impact on the sales of a product, a sexual or violent news story is the product. News organizations could very well experience upticks in viewers or readers when they share stories that concern sex and violence, because these stories do not require the audience to remove their attention from the medium and purchase another product. The attention gained from sex and violence remains on the story, which is the goal for news organizations.

One of the most interesting suggestions, though, was that memory impairment and negative attitudes due to sexual and violent content have actually decreased over the decades. The study cannot say for sure what the reason behind this is, but one theory explaining it is that we, as a society, have become somewhat desensitized to graphic content.

“Viewers are so accustomed to seeing violent and sexual media content that they don’t respond as much today to the attention-grabbing impact as they did in previous decades,” Bushman said.

Source: Lull R, Bushman B. 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. Psychological Bulletin. 2015.

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