Sex does not always sell

More in the world of wild 'n' wacky experiments...first we learned how to make the world's finest bacon sandwich. Now it's time to concoct an experiment that involves making "volunteers" sit down and watch an especially filthy episode of one of the few TV programmes so bad the Poorhouse doesn't avidly watch it - Sex in the City.

A research team from the University College did indeed amass 60 people between 18 and 31, divided into equal groups of men and women to watch the aforementioned programme, specifically the episode "Was it good for you?", which apparently contains "kissing, foreplay, nudity and sex scenes, and a discussion of the merits of sex, sexual failings and homosexuality". Another group watched "Malcolm in the Middle". For some reason the Economist did not describe that programme in such detail, other than to say "It contained no such titillating material".

The groups were then subdivided into two further groups, the difference being the ad-break. In one group, some of the huge number of adverts of a sexual nature - think alcohol, "organics" shampoo, fast cars and the like one supposes - were played to them. The second group had the remaining crumbs of the advertising schedule; those designed to do something else to sell a product than drape a half naked woman around it.

The point of the study then became slightly apparent when, after the programme, the various televisual watchers were quizzed on the content of the adverts including that most important of advertising outcomes, the brand names of the products advertised. The scores were out of 12. The Poorhouse knows not how they were calculated (the study is supposed to have been published in Applied Cognitive Psychology but the Poorhouse cannot find it at the moment for some reason) but the outcome was such that those that had watched boring old Malcolm in the Middle scored 6.87 in their recall test, whereas those put through the dross of Sex in the City got a mere 4.77.

Conclusion? The maxim "sex sells" may or may not be true in terms of the adverts themselves (see later...) but having an advert in the middle of a program featuring sex most definitely is not A Good Thing in terms of getting the brainwashed punters to buy your product.

There have been other findings in similar experiments with violence, with researchers thinking the "disturbing nature" of both sex and violence make the brain work harder (don’t laugh, even though we are talking about Sex in the City) to process the images in the programme and hence less of it is free to mindlessly absorb the product promo messages. The brain just doesn't waste its time recalling specific branding images.

Says Bertram Gawronski, a Canadian social psychology research chair:

A certain level of arousal can attune your attention to incoming information, which then may facilitate recall, but, if there's too much arousal, the processing of the information goes down again.

This raises an interesting point for advertisers. As a mega-simplification to an evermore complex process, advertisers pay a higher amount of money to advertise in programs which have a big audience. And programs with sex and violence in often have very large viewership. According to Diane Costa of Marketing Mechanics, a 10 second advert in Sex in the City might cost $A10000, as opposed to a mere $A1000 for the same advert in the highly Poorhouse-rated Judge Judy programme. But if the programme content of the former lessens the impact of the advert on the watcher then is it really worth paying the extra money? You might reach more people, but if it has little effect on their brains then there's no point to it.

Graphic Designer Nat Gagnon doesn't really care, and she may have a point. She thinks that "most people are in the kitchen to get something to eat or going to the bathroom" anyway during ad-breaks. The Poorhouse would also imagine the rise of DVRs and services such as Sky+ mean more and more adverts might be fast-forwarded through by those with the means to do so.

A further perhaps counter-intuitive finding was that even in isolation to sex-crazed programming content, "sex sells" isn't necessarily true. Overall, the participants did not remember adverts with sex in any better than those without. On review it was determined that in fact some groups of viewers did have a difference in recall than others on this factor. Specifically, and rather more intuitively to many no doubt, men did remember sex-filled adverts better than the less dirty ones, but women actually remembered them worse. Therefore, were these findings to prove to be representative, advert makers would be wise to consider their target market sector before filling the screen with naked men and women.


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