Do sex and violence sell? No, says psychologist

Luke Graham, special to CNBC

The old saying that "sex sells" has been used to justify adding spice to TV shows and advertising for decades. But a new study disputes this. Not only does sex and violence not sell in advertising, it might actually turn off potential customers.

The study, published this week by the American Psychological Association, examined 53 separate studies featuring 8,489 participants to find out how sexual and violent content affected how effective an ad was.

A man walks past an American Apparel store on June 19, 2014 in New York City. American Apparel's board has voted to remove the company's controversial CEO, Dov Charney.
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The researchers, Robert B. Lull and Brad J. Bushman, found that while sexual or violent content in an ad or in the media featuring the ad attracted the audience's attention, they only remembered the sex and violence, not the product being advertised.

In fact, brands advertised during violent programs were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and were less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media.

In addition, as the sexual content and imagery in an ad increased, the audience's brand memory, attitudes and buying intentions all decreased.

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But what does sell in advertising? Lull told CNBC that an effective ad.

"The big question of 'what sells' is dependent on the goal of the campaign. For example, a brand like Apple that has already established deep associations among the public will craft a campaign with completely different goals than a lesser known brand like a local car dealer," explained Lull. "The local car dealer's overarching goal is simply to stand out among the dozens of car dealers in the area, because that means you are that much more likely to remember that dealer and make a visit there when looking for a car.

"Apple doesn't need this; you already know Apple exists so brand awareness is typically not their first goal (unless they enter a new market of course). In fact, an Apple ad to which the audience's first response would be the cheap attention typically allocated to car dealership ads would likely backfire because it would undermine their brand image."

According to Lull, the general purpose of an ad is to promote awareness of a product, a brand's image or to increase brand loyalty.

"Advertisers can only accomplish these goals if the ad has a chance to capture some of the audience's very limited attention. If people don't even see your ad, it's a nonstarter," said Lull. "To that extent, the most comprehensive conclusion from our study is that advertisers shouldn't just consider the content of their ads themselves; they need to consider the context for their ads.

"75 percent of the context for an ad during a typical television program is not just the other ads – it's the program itself. If the program is likely to especially draw audience attention at the expense of attention to the ads, the ads won't be as effective."

The full study can be found here.

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