I don’t watch much broadcast TV, but when I do, I pay a distracting amount of attention to the ads (which is the main reason I don’t watch it much). I think advertisers are extremely good at grabbing your attention quickly, and they’ve really mastered an effective visual language. But what is it good at, beyond compelling the eye to follow it? I confess, if a beer commercial features bikini-clad women bouncing on the screen, my eye is irresistibly drawn to it, and it takes some focus to tear away.
But I don’t think I buy beer based on the attire of their bikini models. Most often, I don’t even know what brand of beer they’re trying to sell with that beach scene, so it would be hard for it to influence me in a specific direction. So here’s a paper that asks about the actual effectiveness of those ads.
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.
Lull, Robert B.; Bushman, Brad J.
Psychological Bulletin, Jul 20 , 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000018
It is commonly assumed that sex and violence sell. However, we predicted that sex and violence would have the opposite effect. We based our predictions on the evolution and emotional arousal theoretical framework, which states that people are evolutionarily predisposed to attend to emotionally arousing cues such as sex and violence. Thus, sexual and violent cues demand more cognitive resources than nonsexual and nonviolent cues. Using this framework, we meta-analyzed the effects of sexual media, violent media, sexual ads, and violent ads on the advertising outcomes of brand memory, brand attitudes, and buying intentions. The meta-analysis included 53 experiments involving 8,489 participants. Analyses found that brands advertised in violent media content were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent, nonsexual media. Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonviolent, nonsexual ads. There were no significant effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions. There were no significant effects of sexual or violent ads on memory or buying intentions. As intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased. When media content and ad content were congruent (e.g., violent ad in a violent program), memory improved and buying intentions increased. Violence and sex never helped and often hurt ad effectiveness. These results support the evolution and emotional arousal framework. Thus, advertisers should consider the effects of media content, ad content, content intensity, and congruity to design and place more effective ads.
First, I have to say…there is no freakin’ evolution in this paper. Psychologists, please stop this: you may have speculated about an evolutionary rationale for your hypothesis, but if you aren’t testing that rationale directly, you are not doing an evolutionary study. OK? You really don’t have to justify a study of recent American advertising with evolution to make it interesting.
But otherwise, this jibes with my experience. Jiggling women or loud race cars or explosions might get my attention, but they don’t seem to tell my brain “You should buy that”.
I wonder if another parameter would be worth assessing: humor. Most of the ads jumping through hoops to capture my attention now seem to be weird humorous things — especially the ubiquitous insurance commercials. But they never seem to be able to help me tell the difference between one and insurance company and another.
I also wonder if centering the commercial on the product is more effective. I remember in my youth that there were these Rainier beer commercials that were all about making the product part of the humor: Pacific Northwesterners of a certain age will remember the wild Rainiers, giant bottles of Rainier beer with legs stampeding through local scenery.
I also remember all my friends buying cases of Rainier even though it’s awful watery beer. So I can’t totally deny the effectiveness of advertising.