A show like HBO’s Game of Thrones enthralls viewers because of its complex, unpredictable plotlines and its compelling characters. But wow, there is a ton of sex and violence in there, too. Is so much really necessary? A less graphic version would likely be just as gripping, but we’ll never see it. Why? Because sex and violence sells, duh. Right?
The “sex and violence sells” assumption is pretty much ironclad in the entertainment industry, an unquestioned truism that we’ve heard so many times by now that it seems self-evident. Our desire for sex and attention to violence helped us evolve. As a result, we are still drawn to it like mosquitoes to a bug zapper. According to Ohio State researchers Robert Lull and Brad Bushman, nearly half of the 100 highest rated TV programs, 100 top-grossing films, and 50 top-selling video games between 2009 and 2014 carried ratings for violent content, and 28% for sexual content (e.g., TV-MA, R, M). So if reaching a large audience is the goal, advertising on programs with sex and violence is a sensible marketing strategy.
Yet any savvy marketer will tell you that reaching an audience is only part of the equation. What happens once they are reached? For advertisers who care about getting the best value for their advertising dollars, the most important criterion is ROI—return on investment. That is, which advertising strategy offers the best ratio of net profit to advertising costs? Answering this raises more fundamental questions regarding sex and violence in programming: Does an ad more effectively encourage people to purchase the advertised product or remember the advertised brand if it appears during sex- and violence-laden programming? Or even more directly, does an ad that itself contains sex and violence increase buying behavior or make a brand more memorable, compared to ads without sex and violence?
Lull and Bushman, in a study entitled “Do Sex and Violence Sell” that appears in the current issue of Psychological Bulletin, gathered every experiment they could find that addressed these questions, and analyzed the overall effects. Across 53 experiments involving nearly 8500 participants, their results include the following:
- Violent programming makes ads less effective. Brands that were advertised during violent programming were remembered less often, evaluated less positively, and were less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in media free from sex and violence.
- Sex-laden programming had no significant impact on memory or intentions to buy the advertised brands.
- Sex-laden ads give people bad feelings about the advertised brand. That is, brands that were advertised using ads with sexual content were evaluated less positively than brands advertised without sex or violence.
- Ads with sex and violence had no impact on memory or buying intentions.
- As the intensity of sexual content in ads increased, memory for the advertised brands decreased, attitudes toward the brand became less favorable, and buying intentions decreased.
- Violence and sex often hurt ad effectiveness, and never helped.
So basically, sex and violence don’t sell after all. Because sex and violence are emotionally arousing, and demand a lot of our brain power to take in, ads that appear during sexual and violent shows tend to fade into the background. This is why the authors of the study advise that advertising in highly sexual or violent shows is not a very effective strategy. Even when ratings for such shows are high, “we suggest that advertising in violent and sexual media results in a lower ROI than advertising in nonviolent and nonsexual media, and any relative advantages of potentially larger audiences are likely nullified by additional costs.” We’ll see if that gets through to any marketing execs. If it does, and the demand for advertising in sexual and violent shows eventually decreases, perhaps then we’ll see a more balanced slate of programming. But I’m not holding my breath.