Viewers of programs with sexually explicit or violent content were less likely to remember commercials immediately after exposure and even 24 hours later.
This is the key finding of the first published study to examine the effect of televised sex on memory for commercial messages. The work was performed by researchers at Iowa State University.
The findings appear in the June issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Applied Psychology.
In an experiment involving 324 adults, psychologist Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D., and Angelica M. Bonacci of Iowa State University randomly assigned the participants to watch a violent, sexually explicit, or neutral television program. The age distribution of the participants was 18 to 54 years old and was representative of the age distribution of adults the same age in U.S. TV households.
Each program contained nine ads for products with broad market appeal, such as soft drinks, cereal and laundry detergent. Immediately after viewing the TV program, the participants were given a surprise test in which they tried to recall the brand names in the commercial messages.
The next day the participants were contacted by telephone and were again asked to recall the advertised brands.
Results show those participants who saw the ads during a neutral program (no sexual or violent content) had better memory of the products advertised than did participants who saw the ads during a sexual or violent program, both immediately after exposure and 24 hours later.
The violent and sexual content impaired memory for both males and females of all ages, regardless of whether they liked programs containing violence and sex.
The results replicate findings of previous studies by Dr. Bushman and other researchers that looked at the effect of violent content on memory for commercial messages, but this is the first published study that also included the effects of televised sex on TV ad messages, say the authors.
"One possible reason why sex and violence impair memory for commercials," according to Dr. Bushman, "is because people pay attention to sex and violence, thus reducing the amount of attention they can pay to the commercials."
"Another possibility is that sexual and violent content prompt sexual and violent thoughts. Thinking about sex and violence, instead of the commercials, could reduce commercial memory." More research in this area is needed before a definitive answer can be given on what is driving this effect, said Bushman.
There is emerging literature demonstrating that sexually explicit media promote sexual callousness, cynical attitudes about love and marriage, and perceptions that promiscuity is the norm, say the study authors. The authors believe their research may deter advertisers from advertising on certain types of programming.
"It is unlikely that moral appeals from parents and other concerned citizens will influence the TV industry to reduce the amount of violence and sex on television. The bottom line -- profits -- actually determines what programs are shown on television. If advertisers refused to sponsor them, violent and sexually explicit TV programs would be extinct."
(Reference: "Violence and Sex Impair Memory for Television Ads," Brad J. Bushman and Angelica M. Bonacci, Iowa State University; Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 87, No. 3.)
[Contact: Brad Bushman Ph.D., Dave Partenheimer]