Conventional wisdom has long held that sex sells in advertising. Advertisers often use sexual ads under the assumption that they attract attention and, therefore, are an effective way to promote products and services. Many continue to pursue this strategy for brands ranging from intimate wear (Victoria’s Secret) to fast food (such as Carl’s Jr).
Likewise, conventional wisdom has long held that violence sells on television. The thinking goes that violent programs thrive because “if it bleeds, it leads” – meaning that people enjoy watching programs featuring crime, violence and other forms of excitement not readily experienced in everyday life.
In these two contexts, conventional wisdom is partially correct. Sexual ads do attract attention. Violent programs do attract viewers.
However, there is an important caveat: at what cost do these ads and programs attract attention and viewers? In other words, could it be that sexual ads attract attention to the sex itself, but not the product, and that violent programs attract attention to the violence itself, but not the product?
To find out, my PhD advisor Brad Bushman and I conducted a meta-analysis, or quantitative review, of existing studies in these areas. There were 53 studies that qualified for inclusion, involving a total of 8,489 participants.
We examined two possible media contexts for sex and violence: ads that featured sex and/or violence themselves, and sexual and/or violent programs in which ads were embedded.
We looked at the effects of those two media contexts on three outcomes that are often used to quantify successful advertising:
brand memory, which is whether participants remember the advertised brand or not
brand attitudes, which note how participants feel about the advertised brand
and buying intentions, which indicate how likely participants are to purchase the product.
We hypothesized that advertising and programs using sex or violence would actually decrease brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions. Because people pay more attention to violence and sex, both in programs and in the ads themselves, we thought the actual products being advertised would become less salient.
Here’s a sampling of what we discovered:
brands advertised alongside violent media content were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably and less likely to be purchased than those advertised in nonviolent contexts
brands advertised using sexual themes were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonsexual images
as the intensity of sexual ad content increased (from suggestive poses to full frontal nudity), memory, attitudes and buying intentions decreased
there were no significant effects of sexual ads or violent ads on memory or buying intentions
however, when media content and ad content were congruent (eg, violent ads in violent programs, nonviolent ads in nonviolent programs), memory improved and buying intentions increased.
Ultimately we found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased their effectiveness. Except when media content and ad content occurred together (which was examined in only a few studies), these measures of ad effectiveness were either negative or insignificant.
So why might this be the case?
One explanation could be tied to evolutionary theory, which suggests that we’re hardwired to notice violent and sexual cues because doing so afforded our ancestors advantages in survival and reproduction.
Attending to violent cues prevented our evolutionary ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators, while attending to sexual cues attuned our evolutionary ancestors to potential opportunities for reproduction.
On the other hand, because attention is a limited resource, attention to other nonsexual or nonviolent cues is impaired when sexual or violent cues are present in the same visual environment.
So in the case of advertisements, while attention may be glued to certain violent or sexual content on a screen or billboard, the brand itself – its name, its logo – fades to the periphery.
From a practical standpoint, this suggests that advertisers may not get the best return on investment by advertising in violent or sexual contexts. Although such contexts may attract large audiences, the apparent advantages of more overall viewers may be offset by lower brand memory, less favorable attitudes and lower buying intentions.
Of course, there are some caveats to this conclusion. Our analysis largely characterizes what might be called the “traditional advertising environment” of television and print. We did account for the few studies that addressed video game advertising, but internet advertising and mobile advertising have grown tremendously in recent years. How these results generalize to new contexts should be borne out in the future.
Nevertheless, our results have timely practical implications for advertisers. It’s important to consider the totality of the advertising exposure experience and understand that eyeballs don’t always equal effective branding.
While sexual ads and violent programs invite viewers’ attention, they may be bad for business.