Public Release: 

Televised sex impairs memory for TV ads just like violence does, according to a new study

Results suggest sponsoring sexual explicit and violent tv programs might be unprofitable for advertisers

American Psychological Association

WASHINGTON -- In the first published study to examine the effect of televised sex on memory for commercial messages, researchers at Iowa State University have found that viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after exposure and even 24 hours later. The findings appear in the June issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Applied Psychology.

In an experiment involving 324 adults, psychologist Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D., and Angelica M. Bonacci of Iowa State University randomly assigned the participants to watch a violent, sexually explicit, or neutral television program. The age distribution of the participants was 18 to 54 years old and was representative of the age distribution of adults the same age in U.S. TV households. Each program contained nine ads for products with broad market appeal, such as soft drinks, cereal and laundry detergent. Immediately after viewing the TV program, the participants were given a surprise test in which they tried to recall the brand names in the commercial messages. The next day the participants were contacted by telephone and were again asked to recall the advertised brands.

Results show those participants who saw the ads during a neutral program (no sexual or violent content) had better memory of the products advertised than did participants who saw the ads during a sexual or violent program, both immediately after exposure and 24 hours later. The violent and sexual content impaired memory for both males and females of all ages, regardless of whether they liked programs containing violence and sex. The results replicate findings of previous studies by Dr. Bushman and other researchers that looked at the effect of violent content on memory for commercial messages, but this is the first published study that also included the effects of televised sex on TV ad messages, say the authors.

"One possible reason why sex and violence impair memory for commercials," according to Dr. Bushman, "is because people pay attention to sex and violence, thus reducing the amount of attention they can pay to the commercials. Another possibility is that sexual and violent content prompt sexual and violent thoughts. Thinking about sex and violence, instead of the commercials, could reduce commercial memory." More research in this area is needed before a definitive answer can be given on what is driving this effect, said Bushman.

There is emerging literature demonstrating that sexually explicit media promote sexual callousness, cynical attitudes about love and marriage, and perceptions that promiscuity is the norm, say the study authors. The authors believe their research may deter advertisers from advertising on certain types of programming. "It is unlikely that moral appeals from parents and other concerned citizens will influence the TV industry to reduce the amount of violence and sex on television. The bottom line - profits - actually determines what programs are shown on television. If advertisers refused to sponsor them, violent and sexually explicit TV programs would be extinct."


Article: "Violence and Sex Impair Memory for Television Ads," Brad J. Bushman and Angelica M. Bonacci, Iowa State University; Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 87, No. 3.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., can be reached at (515) 294-1472 or by e-mail at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.