Sex sells? Not so, TV commercial study says

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |
Carl's Jr.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (Christian Examiner) – The Super Bowl is still nearly three months away, but major businesses already are revealing their strategies for the much-watched commercials that often elicit as much controversy as do the halftime shows.

For example, Hyundai announced this month that it is diving back into Super Bowl ads following a one-year hiatus, and Budweiser divulged that its 2016 Super Bowl commercials won't feature puppies, which were popular during the 2015 ads but didn't boost sales. Meanwhile, Doritos is continuing its popular submit-your-own-ad contest and will announce the semifinalists next month, with the winner having his or her ad aired during the big game.

Companies have yet to release any of their ads, but they may have second thoughts this year about pushing the envelope following new research that showed sex and violence within TV ads actually does more harm than good to a product's brand.

The study by Brad Bushman and Robert Lull of Ohio State University found that viewers are far less likely to remember the brand name or the message of an ad if it features either sex or violence.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, sex doesn't sell. The study was first published online at the website of the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Misfiring on a commercial can be costly: A single 30-second ad during the 2015 Super Bowl cost $4.5 million.

"People are so focused on the sex and violence they see in the media that they pay less attention to the advertising messages that appear along with it," Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, said in a news release. "Advertisers shouldn't be so sure that sex and violence can help them sell their products."

Bushman and Lull conducted a meta-analysis of 53 different experiments involving sex and violence within ads in print, TV, movies and video games.

Viewers' memories were impaired if the ads contained sex or violence. That was particularly the case among men.

"Males pay more attention to violence and sex than women do," Lull said. "Because they're paying more attention to this content, they are less likely to remember the ads."

Additionally, sex- and violence-filled ads had a negative impact on viewers and made them less likely – not more likely – to buy the product.

The research lines up with an earlier study by advertising research firm Ameritest, which examined how viewers reacted to a specific Super Bowl ad for Carl's Jr. that featured a model walking through an outdoor market, seemingly nude. Although 27 percent of customers said they planned on visiting a Carl's Jr. after seeing the ad, the number was below the average of 43 percent who typically respond affirmatively after viewing a restaurant ad.

And the ad actually harmed the Carl's Jr. brand. A full 52 percent said the ad was offensive, and 51 percent said it was irritating and annoying, Ad Age reported. All total, 32 percent said they had a more negative view of Carl's Jr., far above the industry average of 8 percent for fast food commercials.

The Carl's Jr. ad was meant to advertise its new "all-natural" burger. Melissa Henson, director of grassroots education and advocacy for the Parents Television Council, argued that Carl's Jr. needs to recognize that a family of three will buy more burgers than one "young, hungry guy."

"Instead of appealing to their customer's brains and convincing them of the superiority of their product over their competitors', they are aiming for the groin, selling the women as sex objects instead of the hamburgers," Henson wrote at the organization's website. "...Chick-Fil-A, Wendy's, McDonalds, Subway, and Chipotle are all out-performing Carl's Jr. in sales, and guess what they don't do in their advertising? Sexualize women."