Psych prof's study reveals that sex doesn't sell
You've heard the phrase. Many of us probably believe it. Sex and violence sell.
Brad Bushman, an Iowa State University psychology professor now doing work at the University of Michigan and Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, has shown otherwise.
Bushman's societal studies have landed him on national television many times - most recently as he co-authored the first scientific study to show that exposure to video games causes psychological desensitization to real-life violence.
He has been interviewed live on PBS' "Jim Lehrer NewsHour." He has appeared on ABC's "20/20" twice. He's been heard on National Public Radio and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The New York Times.
This time, Bushman set out to discover whether sex and violence really do sell.
"Ordinary people often hold beliefs that have no scientific validity. I like to challenge those beliefs," Bushman says. "One of my colleagues calls me a 'myth buster.'
"This study flies in the face of the commonly-held believe that sex and violence sells. It busts that myth wide open."
Bushman's study tested the effects of violence and sex on memory for commercial messages. It compared recall of identical commercials in programs containing violent or sexual content, versus programs without violence and sex.
The study looked at 324 adults (162 men, 162 women) between 18 and 54 years old. This is representative of the adult television viewers that make up 72 percent of the viewing audience and the prime demographics that advertisers cater to.
Participants were tested in small groups, but each worked independently on all tasks. They were told that researchers were studying attitudes toward television programs, but were instead randomly assigned to watch a violent, sexually explicit or neutral television program.
Commercials were edited out and replaced with the same broad-market appeal commercials for all of the programs (soft drinks, snacks, cereal, laundry detergent).
After viewing the program, viewers were asked to list all of the advertised products they could remember. Twenty-four hours later, they were asked again.
The results busted the myth that sex and violence sells.
"The results of this controlled experiment demonstrated that advertiser recall is significantly higher in programs with no sex or violence," Bushman said. "In fact, commercial message recall among viewers is 62 percent higher in programs without violence and sex."
More importantly Bushman says, the participants' ability to recall brands lasts even 24 hours after exposure to the commercial - it was 60 percent higher.
"The results are the same even when you look at gender and age," he said. "I think what's happening when people watch violent or sexy shows that they aren't thinking about laundry detergent or hot dogs.
"They're thinking about sex and violence."
That could lead to advertisers rethinking where they are putting their advertising dollars.
"The bottom line really determines what programs are shown on television," Bushman said. "If advertisers refused to sponsor them, violent and sexually explicit television programs would become extinct."
Just like the myth Brad Bushman just busted.