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Sexy TV Reduces Ads' Appeal, Study Finds

June 22, 2002|SHANKAR VEDANTAM | WASHINGTON POST

Watching a movie or TV program with strong sexual references interferes with people's ability to remember the commercials in such programs, according to research announced this week.

In the first study to measure empirically whether programming with sexual content helps or detracts from marketers' messages, researchers found that people watching shows packed with sexual innuendo, performers with revealing clothes or sexual scenes were much less likely to remember the ads both immediately after the show and a day later.

The steep declines in memory after the shows were seen among adults of all ages, among both men and women and among those who liked the programs and those who did not.

If the research is replicated and confirmed, it could mean that the popular notion that more sex in shows equals more watchers and a wider response to advertisements is fundamentally flawed.

"If advertisers find out the most popular programs make the ads less successful, it will revolutionize the TV business," said Jonathan Freedman, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto.

The study was reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology and was conducted by psychology professor Brad Bushman and graduate student Angelica Bonacci at Iowa State University in Ames. Similar findings have been reported for violent programs.

The researchers say their work could show advertisers and programmers that sex and violence do not sell. Perhaps most tellingly, the effect on memory was seen in people between ages 18 and 25, a group that advertisers covet as malleable consumers and that programmers try to attract with risque shows.

"The simplest explanation is that people who watch a sexual program are thinking about sex instead of about the ads," Bushman said in an interview.

"People who watch a violent program are thinking about violence, not laundry detergent or soda pop. If you don't pay attention to the ads, you won't encode them in memory," Bushman said.

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