TCS Daily

Sex Still Sells

By Iain Murray - July 8, 2002 12:00 AM

"Sex sells" has been an axiom in the advertising industry since the bikini first made its way onto the TV screen. Yet media buyers got a rude awakening last week when a new study claimed to find that programs with strong sexual or violent content blurred the minds of their viewers so much that they remembered fewer adverts than those who had watched less glamorous programs. If this seemed too hilariously ironic to be true, then it was because the researchers were overselling their findings while at the same time not being forthcoming enough about who sponsored the research.

Psychologists at Iowa State University asked three groups of study participants to watch one batch of programs each. One batch was predominantly violent, featuring programs like the World Wrestling Federation or the dark thriller Millennium. Another watched programs with strong sexual content such as Comedy Central's The Man Show or the TV version of Howard Stern's radio show. A third watched "neutral" programs such as It's A Miracle or Candid Camera. The researchers then asked the participants what they remembered of the adverts (for neutral products such as snacks or laundry detergent) screened during the shows. Out of nine brands, those who had watched violent TV immediately recalled an average of 2; the group that had watched the sexual programming recalled an average of under 2; and the group that watched the neutral shows recalled just over 3. When shown the brands again, the groups recognized 6.5, 6 and 7.5 respectively. Similar ratios applied when the researchers asked the participants to recall the brands again the next day. All the figures were adjusted to take account of possible confounding factors, such as how absorbing the participants found the shows they watched, how familiar the participants were with the different kinds of programming and so on.

The results are clear. There is a marginal difference in how well people can remember adverts relative to the content of the programs in which they appear. The researchers concluded that this was probably because the violent and sexual programs made the participants think more about violence and sex and therefore less about the adverts they had seen. This seems to be a reasonable conclusion.

However, the researchers went further. Arguing from the premise that "if your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic," they concluded that advertisers should "think twice about sponsoring violent and sexually explicit TV programs." But brand recall is only half the story. Not only must people remember your adverts, they must view them in significant numbers. Audience share is vitally important to advertisers. If 100,000 people watching one show remember 3 out of 9 adverts, but 1,000,000 watching another remember half that number, the second show is by far the more successful in advertising terms.

This is, of course, primarily why shows with strong sexual or violent content attract so many advertisers. In the week of November 26, 2001, for example, the WWF program Smackdown reached 4.2% of the broadcast audience. UPN's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show similar to Millennium in its dark and violent nature, reached 3.7%. By contrast, PAX's It's A Miracle reached only 1.1%. Smackdown, having 4 times as many viewers, will have been more attractive to the advertising market than It's A Miracle, even taking the new research into account. Moreover, advertisers also think strongly about particular segments of the market. Men aged 18-49 tend to have high disposable incomes. The raunchy Man Show is the highest rated show in that target group on cable television. Makers of products used by that demographic will therefore be happier if their products are advertised there rather than on Candid Camera.

Why did the researchers ignore this obvious point? A clue might be found in their statement that "if advertisers refused to sponsor them, violent and sexually explicit TV programs would become extinct." This is an odd coda to add to otherwise respectable research results and may perhaps betray an ulterior purpose. All the "neutral" programs shown to the study participants came from the PAX network, a Christian channel. Moreover, the research was funded by a contract - not a grant - from Paxson Communications Corp., the company that owns the PAX network.

It would be wrong to suggest that the researchers have been in any way dishonest in reporting their findings. They are perfectly reasonable and, perhaps, only to be expected. What is troubling, however, is the way that the results have been played up to justify the argument that advertisers should stop supporting immoral programming. There may be good reasons for reducing such programming on TV, but this is not one of them. The conclusion ignores other important considerations and goes beyond the scope of the research. As long as people want to watch the WWF or The Man Show in significant numbers, advertisers will continue to follow them, whatever this research says.



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