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Sex and Violence Don't Always Sell

It's no secret that sex and violence are very present in media. While many people complain about it, they also tend to see it as inevitable. There is a commonly held belief that "sex and violence sell." However, results in a recent meta-study showed that sex and violence were not effective at selling products, whether they characterized the program the ad was interrupting, or the content of the ad itself.

Why are these images used?

Images of sex and violence get our attention. The study authors attribute this to evolutionary theory. Sexual and violent cues have been associated with reproduction and survival and so we're hardwired to pay attention to them. And while this logic works relatively well for the television shows, video games, and movies, that success does not transmit as easily to ads.

Ads are more complicated. It is not enough for an ad to grab the viewer's attention, the viewer also has to understand it's message, evaluate it (favourably or unfavourably), remember it, and decide to purchase that product over the competition. The researchers found that sex and violence in the ad distracted viewers from the product the ad was trying to sell. Because sex and violence are so emotionally arousing, they take up a lot of capacity and leave little over for the brands being advertised.


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