Sex Doesn't Sell

And violence might actually hurt sales, a new analysis suggests.
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(Photo: Jose Angel Astor Rocha/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jose Angel Astor Rocha/Shutterstock)

It's practically standard practice in advertising by now, the notion that sex and violence attract attention and, in turn, boost sales. A review of the research, however, suggests conventional wisdom is wrong: Not only do sex and violence not increase sales, they may actually harm them.

"Over 50 studies conducted over several decades using various methodologies suggest that programs featuring violence and sex do not provide the ideal context for effective advertising," Ohio State University psychologists Robert Lull and Brad Bushman write in Psychological Bulletin.

It's easy to see why people think that sex and violence, either in the ads themselves or in television programs, for example, would help sell products—after all, sexually charged content and violent images do attract our attention.

Sexy shows don't seem to have much of an impact on brand memory, and sex and violence in ads themselves have no discernible effect on brand memory.

Still, Lull and Bushman (and others) observe, attention isn't everything. Even if a TV spot garners significant attention, it won't generate sales unless people remember the product and have a positive impression of it—factors that sex and violence can work against, if they distract attention from a product, or give said product a bad name.

So is the attention you get from scantily clad bodies and fiery explosions worthwhile? Lull and Bushman looked at studies that addressed three questions: Do sex and destruction (in the ads themselves or in the TV shows, movies, or video games they interrupt) improve memory for the products advertised? Do they improve impressions of those products? And do people say they're likely to buy them after seeing the ad?

Across 53 studies conducted since 1969, the answer to those questions is usually "no." Violent television shows, for example, seem to impair our ability to remember what product a commercial is advertising—what's called brand memory—compared with less violent fare. Sexy shows, Lull and Bushman found, don't seem to have much of an impact on brand memory, and sex and violence in ads themselves have no discernible effect on brand memory. Meanwhile, sex and violence in an ad or its surrounding media (i.e. TV shows and video games) had a nearly universal negative impact on people's attitudes toward a brand.

But do people want to buy whatever it is an ad is selling? While the ads themselves don't seem to have much impact, and sexy shows don't do a whole lot either way, people who watched an ad during a violent TV show or video game generally had less of a desire to buy the product than if they'd watched the same ad during a less-scandalous show or game.

Advertisers ought to take note, Lull and Bushman argue. "Brands advertised in violent contexts will be remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media," and while the effects aren't as strong, sex "does not appear to be a successful strategy either."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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