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U of Michigan Confirms: Sex and Violence Don’t Sell

I recently covered a sexually charged television advertising campaign’s failure to sell beer. Shortly after filing the story, I discovered a recently released study from the University of Michigan that may provide more reasons than ever before for advertisers to avoid violent and sexual television content.

Brad Bushman is a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Communications Studies, and a Faculty Associate for the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan. It’s a mouthful, but put simply this guy specializes in studying aggression and likes to challenge societal myths—in this case the myth that violence and sex sells.

Bushman’s most recent study looks at violent and sex-laden television shows and the effectiveness of the commercials within those programs. Essentially, he wants to know if audiences are more likely to remember the brand names and advertising messages embedded in programs like Martial Law or Howard Stern as opposed to a “neutral” program such as Candid Camera.

In the preamble to his findings, the researcher notes that the average American may be exposed to 500 advertising messages per day. Of those, we remember few of them because our brains are so busy processing other information.

However, other research has shown that we pay more attention to erotic or violent messages. Thus, people tend to watch violent and sensual television more closely, and may even recall what they saw for longer periods of time. But when it’s time for a commercial, can our brains immediately shift gears and concentrate on what the advertiser is trying to sell?

To answer that question, the researches recruited over 300 participants by running ads in newspapers and telling them they simply wanted to “study attitudes towards TV programs.” Desiring to simulate the typical television-watching environment, each one was made comfortable and provided with a supply of snacks. Then a random television program was chosen from a selection of 18 representing the categories of “violent,” “sexual,” or “neutral.”

All of the original commercials were removed from the recorded programs and replaced with a consistent set of advertisements offering solicitations for laundry detergent, soft drinks, and snack food.

At the conclusion of each program, Bushman’s team began asking questions, including a memory test regarding the advertised brands. The team leader’s results were astounding… and consistent.

“We’ve found people are less likely to remember the ads if they are in violent or sexual programs than in neutral programs,” says Bushman. “Sixteen studies have been done and overall it shows people remember 27% more ads in neutral programs.”

Even more surprising is the result holds true for various ages and genders. So a young male watching a violent program didn’t have any better recall of advertising messages than an older woman watching the same thing.

Why do our brains react in this manner? Bushman offers a couple of theories.

“The simplest explanation is violence and sex grab our attention. From an evolutionary perspective that makes sense. If people are thinking about violence and sex in a TV program, they’re less likely to think about laundry detergent.”

“As for violence, violent programs make people angry. It takes a lot of effort to repair a bad mood,” suggests the researcher.

When asked about sex and violence in the commercials themselves, Bushman shared the early findings of another study he’s completing that analyzes the content of the advertising.

Again, the results look similar.

“Preliminary studies also show the content of ads make a difference. If the content of the ad matches the content of the program they might be more likely to remember it. But if you test the viewers’ memory for the ads overall, it’s actually lower for the violent ads, and sexual ads were the same as neutral ads,” Bushman advises.

With ad agencies pouncing on every bit of information available to hone the effectiveness of their clients’ messages, lets hope Bushman’s efforts see the light of prime time.

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