WASHINGTON (CNS) — The long-held credo of advertising long has been “sex sells.”

But that may not be quite the case, according to a “meta-analysis” of television advertising surveys published last year in the Psychological Bulletin, a professional peer-reviewed journal.

Brad J. Bushman, an Ohio State University professor of communication and psychology, and then-Ohio State doctoral student Robert B. Lull — who now works at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — looked at the conclusions drawn by 53 studies, with a total of 8,489 subjects interviewed in them.


“We found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness,” Bushman told the American Psychological Association, which announced the findings. “In general, we found violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decreased advertising effectiveness.”

“Effectiveness” for the Bushman-Lull analysis was defined by brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions.

The studies examined by the pair focused on a variety of media, including movies, television, video games and print. Some of the studies looked not only at violent and sexual content in the media themselves but also the content of the ads.

When it came to violence, its greatest influence was a negative one, they concluded. 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.

And with sex, its influence was minimal, according to Bushman and Lull. Products and services advertised during commercial breaks in media with sexual content or dialogue were viewed less favorably than those advertised in media with no sexual overtones. Further, there was little difference in viewers’ brand memory or intention to buy.

Also worth noting: The Super Bowl, America’s ultimate gladiator festival, is a relative failure, ad-wise, despite its high ratings and even higher ad costs. According to the Bushman-Lull research from 2012 and 2013, 80 percent of the Super Bowl ads did not increase purchase intentions or behaviors, compared to 60 percent of non-Super Bowl commercials, and those who remembered seeing a Super Bowl ad recalled the brand name only 35 percent of the time compared to 50 percent for those seeing non-Super Bowl ads.

“It’s not that people aren’t attracted to sex and violence,” Lull told the APA. “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.”

The difference, Lull added, is that while violence and sex attract attention, it’s at the expense of surrounding content that is neither violent nor sexual. 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.


This should serve as a sobering wake-up call to advertisers who make big TV ad buys especially during ratings “sweeps” months like February, when networks tend to pull out all the stops with eye-catching programming, as future advertising rates are set in part on ratings that sweeps programming fetch.

The lesson also applies to the regular season, as 12 of the 25 top-rated series from 2014-15 TV season were rated either TV-14 or TV-MA for their sexual content.

“Advertisers think sex and violence sell, so they buy advertising time during sexual and violent programs, and in turn producers continue to create sexual and violent programs that attract advertising revenue,” Bushman and Lull said in their analysis. They quoted former CBS and NBC programming president Jeff Sagansky, who said in 1994, “The number one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers. We aren’t going to get rid of violence until we get rid of advertisers.”

Now, however, with the demonstrable failure of violence and sex to sell products at a faster clip than a family comedy, American society may be turning a corner. Couch Potato Man is not as malleable as once thought, and for that he deserves credit.

Maybe, after all, we were indeed created just a little less than the angels.


Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.