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Does Sex Really Sell?

You probably think it’s obvious that sex sells. That’s a basic, unchallenged marketing belief. When it comes to advertising and sales, we naturally turn to eye candy, pretty women and men who are the ideal faces of persuasion. They smile seductively when they urge us to buy, buy buy! And we buy.

But with sex and sales, as with so many other issues, it turns out that more is not necessarily better. In fact, what a visual hint of sex will accomplish, a visual barrage of sex can destroy. Not long ago, researchers at Iowa State University found that viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after watching and even 24 hours later.

Does sex sell? Not necessarily, it turns out. It is not as obvious as we supposed. Perhaps we need to rethink some of our beliefs.

The Iowa study involved several hundred subjects aged 18-54 with demographics selected to match those of the U.S. television audience. Those who saw ads during neutral programming (no sexual or violent content) remembered the advertised products better than those who saw the ads during sexual or violent programs. 

We can speculate about why this might be true. Perhaps it’s because people pay so much attention to the violence and sex that they have less attention to spare for the commercials. Perhaps the sexual and violent images stir up their own thoughts, which interfere with the ability to pay attention to the commercials. Or perhaps, as is the case in real-life experience of trauma, strong emotions aroused by powerful images impaired their memory directly.

Regardless of the mechanism, the practical result of sex and violence on TV is that viewers remember less of the products the advertisers are trying to sell. If you can’t remember it, you’re not going to buy it.

The false notion that sex and violence sell comes from the fact that their intensity captures the channel surfer’s attention. Advertising revenue is naively based on the number of viewers, regardless of whether their ads make an impact on them. But if the viewers can’t remember the commercials on these shows, what difference does it make that more people are watching!

When television, or other media, is criticized for poor taste and poor judgment, it tends to explain away responsibility by referring to the marketplace: sex sells, the industry says. And we’re in the business of selling products by selling commercials. But this Iowa study, and previous ones that examined violence alone, shows that argument to be false. Advertisers who want to make an impression on television viewers would be better off reaching fewer people who can remember their product, than reaching more people who are so overwhelmed by the program that the commercial message is lost. Sexually graphic, intensely violent television programs are selling only one thing: the message of excessive violence and sex.

It is a coarsening and degrading message. It is a message of hostility and misogyny. And it doesn’t even work!

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