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Sex Doesn't Sell

17 June 2002 (All day)
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Name that dishwashing fluid. Volunteers who watched racy television had trouble recalling the ads.

"Sex sells" is a central tenet of advertising. But a new study says that after watching salacious American television, viewers are less likely to remember the commercials, a finding that could dampen the networks' demand for sexually suggestive programs.

The negative effects of violent television, such as an increase in criminal behavior, are well-documented (ScienceNOW, 28 March), as is impaired recall for commercials shown during violent programs. Far less is known about the effects of sexual content on viewers.

Brad Bushman and Angelica Bonacci of Iowa State University in Ames set out to rectify this by showing TV programs with and without sexual content to a cross-section of the viewing public. Nestled in comfy chairs and plied with snacks, subjects watched either a 40-minute-long racy program, defined by an S rating that generally warns of explicit sex or sexual conversation or innuendo on U.S. television--such as "Strip Poker" or "The Man Show"--or a "neutral" program--such as "Candid Camera." Each program contained the same nine commercials. Immediately after viewing, subjects took a pop quiz on the products they had seen in the ads. Most who saw sexual programs recalled only one or two product names--about half as many as those who saw neutral programs. The results held up even after adjusting for subjects' ratings of how interesting the programs were. Bushman speculates that viewers of sexual content performed poorly either because the show consumed all their attention or because it prompted sexual thoughts, making them less attuned to the ads. "People watching a sexual program are probably thinking about sex instead of soda pop," he said. The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the results "interesting and provocative." Still, he says, the methods could have been more refined. The study does not address what kinds of sexual content--explicit sex versus innuendo, for example--most dull consumer attention, he says. Nor did it distinguish between sexual and nonsexual excitement, such as how a subject might react to a game show. But the emphasis on advertising may give the study more leverage over previous studies, which addressed the social effects of televised sex and violence, he says. "That's pulling at the networks' heartstrings; this is pulling at their pocketbooks."

Related sites
Brad Bushman's home page

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