Maybe sex, violence don't sell after all

July 08, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - As an average American confronted by roughly 500 ads a day, I have developed an immunity to the allure of commercials.

Oh, from time to time, I become fond of a little quacking duck, but I can never remember what AFLAC stands for. I become amused by the woman getting altogether too much "organic experience" from Herbal Essences shampoo, but it doesn't lead me to the check-out counter.

Nevertheless, I think I swallowed the biggest line of all: the ad for ads, the commercial for commercials. Despite authoring at least a dozen screeds against the irresponsibility of sex-and-violence programmers, I assumed we were in a (losing) battle with the marketplace.

The message, repeated as endlessly as an old-time jingle, is that programs with sex and violence attract the audience, and therefore the advertisers. It isn't us, said Hollywood moguls, it's the economy, stupid. Lingerie shows rule sweeps week.

But what if sex doesn't sell? What if violence isn't viable? What if the risquM-i is risky? What if, to put it more accurately, programs full of smarm and rage don't deliver more customers?

This subversive possibility is raised by a recent study at Iowa State University. Researchers there found that people watching TV shows with strong sexual or violent content remembered 67 percent fewer ads than those watching neutral programs.

Brad Bushman and his colleague, Angelica Bonacci, recruited more than 300 folks and gave them $25, a comfortable chair, some soft drinks and cookies - nice work if you can get it - to watch TV. No zapping, no muting, no surfing allowed.

They assigned one group to such V-rated stuff as World Wrestling Federation Monday Night Nitro and Tour of Duty. A second group got shows like The Man Show and Strip Mall. A third group got programs like Miracle Pets and Candid Camera. The researchers spliced in the same nine ads for mainstream products like cereal and soda pop.

One couple, a Baptist minister and his wife assigned to sex-watching, freaked out and dropped out. But when it was all over, the researchers declared that the subjects who watched the wrestling and the jiggling were much less likely to remember the brands. No matter their age or gender, they were, in psychological jargon, "memory impaired."

Now, I realize that this may sound like grandma's favorite warning: One more smack-down and your brain will fry. One more bikini and you'll get Sex-zheimer's.

I also realize that this bulletin from the brain fits a tad too neatly into the agenda of folks - Mr. Bushman and present company included - who have been critics of sex, violence and their purveyors.

But Mr. Bushman doesn't deny that sex and violence get our attention. On the contrary, he suggests, they may so rivet our interest that our minds can't break for the commercial. "People watching a sexual program are thinking about sex, not soda pop," he says. "Violence and sex elicit very strong emotions and can interfere with memory for other things." It's a kind of internal zapper.

This leads to all sorts of unanswered questions and, no doubt, a never-ending supply of research projects for the Iowan. Does "memory impairment" mean that neutral shows are better vehicles for brand names? Or do we just surf away from neutrality? Should the savvy programmer ratchet down the sex and violence to win the advertiser? Or, gulp, should the savvy advertiser ratchet up the sexual content of the ad to match the show?

Jim Twitchell, a longtime ad-watcher and commercial cynic from the University of Florida, puts all this research in the "Duh" category. The real secret, he says, is that no one knows what ads work: "95 percent of the ads go under the radar and don't get remembered at all," he says. As for sex and sales, he offers a truism: "Sex doesn't sell, it just gathers a crowd."

Fair enough. But the public policy pitch has always been that the bigger the crowd, the bigger the profits. Even if the crowd has Sex-zheimer's?

Today, we know about the problems of ad clutter and overkill, zapping and muting, product placement and replacement. We also have programmers increasing sex and violence as if they were standing tiptoe in a crowd and needed to be seen. And we've seen R and X become the international ratings, sent abroad with a "Made in America" label.

Now someone is saying that this stuff isn't just socially irresponsible, it's fiscally irresponsible. Anybody out there in Hollywood listening? Or is your memory too impaired?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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