Sex in ads: you’re doing it wrong

A new research analysis suggests that violence and sex can have a negative impact on how we see brands.
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We might love our violent and sexy programming, but new analysis out of the U.S. suggests that brand perception can be negatively affected by edgy media.

Researchers at the Ohio State University conducted a review of 53 studies (totaling 8,489 participants) looking at sex and violence in both media (including television, movies, video games and print) and advertising itself and the impact that has on consumers remembering brands and their buying intentions. The studies were from around the world, with many from the U.S. and U.K.

For example, a typical study might insert the same ad for a product, such as laundry detergent, into three different program types (one with sex, one with violence and one with neither) and then conduct a surprise memory test with consumers.

Despite grabbing attention, sexual and violent programming, along with ads whose content was sexual or violent, led to an overall negative impact for the brands involved.

“Humans are hardwired to pay attention to violence and sex,” says Brad Bushman, professor at Ohio State and co-author of the report, which was published in the Psychological Bulletin journal. But we also have a limited ability to process information, so that content can backfire and leave less room for remembering what was advertised.

Violence has a greater negative impact, with brands advertising during programming with violence to be remembered less often and less positively and with less intention to buy. “[Research participants] may not even be able to verbalize why they have those more negative attitudes, but they do,” Bushman says.

The same could be said for sexuality but with a less significant impact (more on brand perception and less on memory or buying intention). While more difficult to do with violence, levels of sexuality could be accounted for (ranging from suggestive poses to full-frontal nudity with genitalia), and the more sexual the content, the greater negative impact on memory, perception and buying intention.

The exception (although in only four of the 53 studies) was ad content that was somewhat fitting with the programming (a sexual ad during a program with sexuality). In those cases, brand recall and buying intention weren’t negatively affected.

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