WASHINGTON -- Advertisers hoping to sway consumers might want to rethink running spots within media with violent or sexual themes, and might do better if the ads themselves have a G-rating, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. Instead, violent and sexual media content may impair advertising's effectiveness and ultimately deter purchasing, the research found.
"We found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness," said Brad J. Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, and a co-author on the study, which appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin. "In general, we found violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decreased advertising effectiveness."
Bushman and lead author Robert B. Lull, PhD, a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University at the time of the research, conducted a meta-analysis of 53 studies comprising 8,489 participants that were conducted through 2014. The goal was to determine the influences of violent and sexual content on advertising effectiveness as measured by brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions. The studies focused on a variety of media, including movies, television programs, video games and print. Some studies looked not only at violent and sexual content in the media themselves but also the content of the advertisements.
The researchers found that violence appeared to have the greatest influence, but in a negative way. Brands advertised during commercial breaks in violent media were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media.
Sexual content had a little influence, but not as much. Brands advertised during commercial breaks in media with sexual overtones were viewed less favorably than those advertised in media with no sexual content, but there was little difference in viewers' brand memory or intention to buy.
The researchers also looked at the content of the advertisements themselves. While they found no significant effects of violent or sexual content in advertisements, they did note that in a few studies when media content and ad content were congruent (e.g., a violent ad in violent media or a sexual ad in sexual media), viewers were more likely to remember the ads and had a stronger intention to buy the product. As the sexual content of an ad increased (i.e., from suggestive poses to full frontal nudity) viewers' memory, attitudes and buying intentions all decreased, Lull said.
"It's not that people aren't attracted to sex and violence," said Lull. "On the contrary, people have been attracted to sex and violence since evolutionary times, when attending to violent cues prevented our ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators and paying attention to sexual cues attuned our ancestors to potential reproductive opportunities."
However, while violence and sex attract attention, it's at the expense of surrounding content that is neither violent nor sexual, according to Lull. People pay more attention to the violence and the sex surrounding ads, both in programs and the ads themselves, than to the actual products being advertised. Consequently, memory, attitudes and buying intentions all decrease, he said.
"Our findings have tremendous applied significance, especially for advertisers," said Bushman. "Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes and buying intentions for advertised products. Thus, advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexual programs, and about using violent and sexual themes in their ads."
Article: "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," by Robert B. Lull, PhD. and Brad J. Bushman, PhD, The Ohio State University. Psychological Bulletin, published online July 20, 2015.
Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.