What? Sex and Violence Don't Sell?

If it bleeds it leads," is said to be the mantra of many a TV news director when putting together the story roster for the evening news. But Brad Bushman has a different take: "If the TV program bleeds, memory for the brand recedes."

And when it comes to brand recall in TV ads, "sex doesn't sell," he adds.

Bushman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, and Iowa State University's Angelica Bonacci recently completed a study that they say demonstrates that viewers don't remember ads as well when they are featured in programs with high levels of sexual and violent content.

The study was based on a group of 324 viewers who watched tapes of 18 TV shows, including the headbanging wrestling, the sexually charged USA cable's Strip Poker and the more sedate Miracle Pets on Pax. After 40 to 45 minutes, participants were asked to recall the brand names of the advertised products.

The researchers found that people are less likely—by an average of 19%—to remember a TV ad when it is inserted in a violent or sexually explicit program.

Brand recall was 17% higher for participants who watched a "neutral" program than for those who saw a violent show. And recall was 21% higher for viewers watching neutral shows versus a highly sexual program.

What if you juice up the ads with sex and violence? Well, Bushman and Bonacci thought of that and found that it didn't seem to change the results. The violent ads were 20% less memorable and the sexy ones 18% less memorable than the neutral ads.

"The bottom line is that matching ad type to program type doesn't change the basic fact that people are less likely to remember brands advertised in violent and sexually explicit programs," Bushman says.

The results of course beg the question, why? That question wasn't addressed in the current study. However, in a study done last year by the same two researchers, they suggested that viewers focus so hard on the sex and violence that they take a mental rest during the commercial breaks. "Individuals have a limited amount of attention to direct toward TV programs," they wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology. "The more attentive individuals are toward a TV program, the less attentive capacity they have for the commercials embedded in the program."