22 February 2007

Sex doesn’t sell

Cosmos Online
Sex won't sell ads, say British researchers who found that sexual content in a TV show prevents viewers from remembering accompanying ads.
Sex doesn't sell

Sex in TV shows keeps viewers from remembering the ads they see during programming breaks, say British researchers. Credit: iStockphoto

SYDNEY: Sex won’t sell ads, say British researchers who found that sexual content in a TV show prevents viewers from remembering accompanying ads.

The research team, from University College London, said advertisers may not be getting the most for their money if they book time during popular sexy programs.

“The fact that recall of adverts was hindered by sexual content in the programs suggests that there is something particularly involving or disturbing about sexual programs,” said study author Adrian Furnham.

Furnham and co-author Ellie Parker recruited 60 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 31, half males and half females. Randomly dividing them into two groups, half were shown the highly sexual “Was it good for you” episode of Sex and the City, and half watched an emphatically non-sexy episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The team found that the study subjects were less able to recall the content of advertising embedded the sexual program than in the more chaste offering.

“I think it’s really interesting,” said Diane Costa, director of sales and marketing at Marketing Mechanics, a Sydney-based ad agency. “This could have a really major impact on the … pricing scheme of ads.” According to Costa, the cost of placing an ad in a given show is based largely on its popularity. “A 30-second spot during primetime on Sex and the City might cost A$10,000. A 30-second spot during Judge Judy in the afternoon might cost A$1,000.”

Advertisers will pay a premium, she explained, to match their products to shows that reach their target audience, such as placing ads for shampoo or spirits in more adult, sexually-themed shows like Sex and the City. “Of course you’re going to place those ads in Sex and the City because that’s the largest [audience] that you’re marketing to,” she said. “But, if people aren’t remembering it, then that … is just going to throw everything out,” she said.

The team went further, curious whether presence of sexual material in the ads themselves affected the subjects’ ability to remember them. They showed half of each study group ads with sexual content during breaks in the programs, and the other half non-sexual ads.

Not surprisingly, said Costa, Furnham and Parker found that men remembered sexual ads better than non-sexual ones. “Sex and guys,” she said, “is going to work no matter what you do.”

Intriguingly, though, the presence of sexual content in ads appeared actively to put off females – inhibiting their ability to remember them. “Making your ads sexy or putting them in sexy programs may in fact backfire,” said Furnham.

Furnham and Parker chose the episodes and adverts they showed to the subjects with the help of a panel made up of four women and four men, which rated the choices on a scale from most to least sexual. Sexual and non-sexual ads representing a variety of product catagories were chosen, including spots from Budweiser, Lynx body spray, Bacardi rum, Virgin mobile phones, and Pantene shampoo.

Excited about the findings, Furnham also noted that the study was not perfect. Ideally, he said, the researchers would have shown subjects several different shows of each type, in order to control for any unforseen effects of the specific episodes.

Costa, too, would like to see more research done. She noted that, depending on what geographic area subjects came from, a lot of the major advertisers have a lot of different spots in different media. So, she said, the subjects might well have had a bit of product recall to begin with. In order to get really concrete results, she explained, “They’d probably have to do that study 10 times across 10 different regions.”


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