PhotoSome commercials try to push the envelope in search of “edginess.” In 2014, Capital One briefly aired a commercial with spokesman Samuel L. Jackson using a tame swear word in his promotion of the Quicksilver Cash Back Card.

Madison Avenue has turned out other ads with sexual and violent themes. Often they disappear quickly, but not for the reason you might think.

It's not consumer backlash as much as the fact the ads just might not work.

New research from the American Psychological Association suggests G-rated ads are more effective, with the edgier ones impairing the ads' effectiveness and ultimately persuading consumers not to make a purchase.

No evidence of effectiveness

“We found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness,” said Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, and a co-author on the study. “In general, we found violent and sexual programs, and ads with violent or sexual content decreased advertising effectiveness.”

The same was true for ads placed within violent content. In fact, the study determined that violence appeared to have the greatest influence, but not in a good way. Brands advertised during commercial breaks in violent media were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media.

What about sexual content? The study found products and services advertised during commercial breaks in media with sexual overtones were viewed less favorably than those advertised in media with no sexual content. However, there was little difference in viewers’ brand memory or intention to buy.

Focused on the sex and violence

“It’s not that people aren’t attracted to sex and violence,” said lead author Robert Lull. “On the contrary, people have been attracted to sex and violence since evolutionary times, when attending to violent cues prevented our ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators and paying attention to sexual cues attuned our ancestors to potential reproductive opportunities.”

So why isn't it effective in attracting eyeballs to ads? It does attract eyeballs, and that may be the problem.

Violence and sex attract attention, but they attract so much of it that viewers sort of miss the commercial message. People pay more attention to the violence and the sex surrounding ads, both in programs and the ads themselves, than to the actual products being advertised. Consequently, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions all decrease, Lull said.

Back to bland

This is why consumers might start seeing a return to the bland, boring ads of the past, inserted into rather tame content. It's why a series like The Sopranos was perfect for HBO, where it ran without commercial interruption – and why neither the series nor the ads would be remotely effective if it aired with commercials.

The lesson for Madison Avenue?

“Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes, and buying intentions for advertised products,” Bushman said. “Thus, advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexual programs, and about using violent and sexual themes in their ads.”  

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