Study: When it comes to advertising, sex doesn’t actually sell

All I see is body parts.
All I see is body parts.
Image: AP/Seth Wenig
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Sex may sell itself, but that doesn’t mean it sells everything. A new study suggests that while advertisements with sex may grab your attention, they’re not good at actually selling you stuff.

In a meta-analysis of 53 experiments involving nearly 8,500 participants, researchers from Ohio State University examined the effectiveness of sex and violence in advertisements. To synthesize the data, the researchers coded past experiments in which participants reported on their memory of, attitudes toward, and intentions to buy products after they watched TV or films or played video games, or saw ads in print. They studied both neutral ads shown during sexual and/or violent TV programs, as well as ads containing sexual and violent content themselves.

Participants in the experiments, published in late July by Psychological Bulletin, viewed brands that used sexual ads (which could be anything from a fully clothed but extremely sexualized model to actual sexual organs) less favorably than brands that featured neutral ads. Brands that showed ads during violent programs were remembered less often, viewed less favorably, and were less likely to be purchased. As the report stated, “Violence and sex never helped and often hurt ad effectiveness.”

Lead researcher Brad Bushman explained the findings to Quartz as follows: “Humans are hard-wired to pay attention to violence and sex, but they only have a limited capacity to pay attention. If they’re focused on the violence or sex in a video game or magazine, they have less attention to pay to a Tide laundry detergent.”

More research would be needed to examine the effect of sex and violence in ads on attention span. But in support of that theory, the report found that, as ads got sexier, people were less likely to remember, like, and buy the associated product.