Did This Study Really Debunk the Biggest Cliché in Advertising?
We human beings are suckers for a bit of sex and violence – judging by the popularity of Game of Thrones and, before that, public hangings and those lustful tapestries that hang in National Trust houses. No wonder advertisers are keen to tap into our baser instincts, bypassing our frontal lobes and going straight for our lizard brain. But a newly published study suggests that slap and tickle might not be all that effective when it comes to building brands and selling products.
The paper ‘Do Sex and Violence Sell? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Sexual and Violent Media and Ad Content on Memory, Attitudes, and Buying Intentions’ by Robert Lull and Brad Bushman at Ohio State University has certainly caught the imaginations of the mainstream press, with coverage cropping up in The Times, The Daily Mail, Business Insider and The Metro. The upshot is that while sex and violence capture our attention, they distract from the rest of the ad: the message, the product, the brand.
The researchers have suggested that this is because people are evolved to pay particular attention to and physiologically react to sex and violence at the expense of other stimuli. Mugging victims are not going to waste mental energy thinking, ‘that thug's trainers are bare wicked’ when they’ve got a fight-or-flight response kicking into action.
It’s an interesting and potentially heartening finding, with lots for the advertising industry to ponder. I do hope, though, that people read the paper and don’t just fall for the headlines (it's freely available from the America Psychological Association's website). The study, as the researchers themselves point out, comes with lots of qualifiers and limitations (as a lot of psychological research does). And very rarely (if ever) do you find psych researchers bandying around the word ‘proof’ – it’s about incrementally refining our understanding of an issue and future studies may well find more specific exceptions.
The thing is, sexy or sexual advertising runs the gamut from Kylie’s ‘Hello Boys’ to the awkward 90s, fully clothed, implied incest of Papa and Nicole in Publicis’ vintage Renault campaign. While the study did include a scales to code the intensity of the ads’ content and had a criteria for what sort of ads counted as sexual or violent, they were (by the researchers’ own admission) quite subjective. I'd also argue that tone and intent are quite important mediating factors - with its deviant, bestial implications, skimpy outfits, sexy dancing and in-yer-face innuendo, I reckon Fred + Farid's 2007 Orangina ad is undeniably sexually charged but no one, other than furries, actually got turned on by it... did they?
Also worth noting is that the paper is a meta-analysis (a statistical study of previous research to look for over-arching trends in the data) so the researchers are limited by the kinds of questions previous studies asked. For example, the context for an advertising strategy is pretty important – how, and indeed why, would you advertise Durex without even some implied sexiness? If anything, the paper left me with more questions the more I thought about it, which, all things considered, is a good thing. Is sexual and sexually arousing the same thing? Is nudity automatically sexual? Does slapstick comedy fit into the ‘credible threat of violence’? At what point does macho posturing become a threat?
Listen, if this study means that there are fewer lazy Carls Junior, Beach Body Ready ads, softcore, monochrome perfume commercials and aggressive male deodorant spots full of sweaty boxers then that is fine by me. See also American Apparel. But I’d hate for the headline-grabbing summary to become a dog whistle to blandness and prudishness. After all, if the advertising landscape completely avoids anything that could be remotely construed as sexual or ‘violent’, then we’ll likely end up with content that’s inauthentic and starched. And completely removed from the human experience.
Dig a little deeper and it turns out that there are a few more concrete and practical findings in the study. For one thing, while sexual content in ads negatively impacted on brand attitudes, neither sex nor violence seemed to have an effect on intent to do buy. And, for media buyers out there, the study also looked at the sexual and violent content of TV shows around which the ads were placed – although the findings didn’t bode well for all the ridiculous tripe I watch (ad-free HBO and Netflix it is then).
I appreciate rigorous, peer-reviewed advertising research as much as the next former psychology student. God knows the statistical analysis is going to somewhat less shoogly than anything that comes out of the advertising industry (don’t give me that look; you know who you are and you know what I mean). But on the other hand, findings because something comes with the REAL SCIENCE stamp of approval, summaries shouldn’t be taken at face value and it’s worth actually combing through the subtleties of papers like these.
The biggest problem I have with the way that the study has played out in the media is that I counted six headlines online that used some variation of the screamer ‘It turns out sex DOESN’t sell!’ Why? Because it’s an easy, eye-catching story. But has the biggest cliché in advertising really been debunked? I’m not so sure.