Do Sex and Violence Sell?

Robert B. Lull, MA

Brad J. Bushman, PhD
The Ohio State University

Industry projections estimate US advertising revenue will reach $187 billion in 2015 (Lunden, 2015). A single business with that amount of revenue would place 4th on the Fortune 500 list — ahead of Apple, General Motors, and Ford. As media researchers, we were curious about advertising effectiveness across the visual media platforms of print, television, and video games. More specifically, we were curious about how effective advertisements are when they are placed in violent or sexual media contexts, as well as how effective advertisements which feature violence or sex are themselves.

What We Did and What We Found

In a review to be published in a future issue of Psychological Bulletin, we meta-analyzed 53 studies involving 8,489 participants to determine the influences of violent and sexual programs and ads on advertising effectiveness as measured by brand memory, brand attitudes, and buying intentions (Lull & Bushman, in press). Here is what we found:

  • Brands advertised in violent media content were remembered less often, evaluated less favorably, and less likely to be purchased than brands advertised in nonviolent media content.
  • Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonsexual ads.
  • As the intensity of sexual ad content increased (i.e., from suggestive poses to full frontal nudity), memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased.
  • When media content and ad content were congruent (e.g., violent ad in a violent program, nonviolent ad in a nonviolent program), memory improved and buying intentions increased.
  • There were no significant meta-analytic effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions.
  • There were no significant meta-analytic effects of sexual ads or violent ads on memory or buying intentions.

In general, violent and sexual programs and ads decreased advertising effectiveness. Importantly, we found almost no evidence that violent and sexual programs and ads increased advertising effectiveness; these effects were either negative or nonsignificant except when media content and ad content were congruent which was only examined in very few studies.

Theoretical Interpretations

Interpreting these results within an evolutionary framework, we propose that people are hard-wired to pay attention to violent and sexual cues (Buss & Duntley, 2006; Maner, Gailliot, Rouby, & Miller, 2007) because attending to violent and sexual cues provided advantages in survival and reproduction, two main goals proposed by evolutionary theory (Neuberg, Kenrick, Maner, & Schaller, 2004). Attending to violent cues prevented our evolutionary ancestors from being killed by enemies or predators (Neuberg, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2010). Attending to sexual cues attuned our evolutionary ancestors to potential reproductive opportunities (Maner et al., 2003).

We propose that violence and sex do attract attention, but at the expense of surrounding content that is neither violent nor sexual. There is good support for this proposal: Weapon focus studies have found that the presence of a weapon during a crime causes observers to fixate on the weapon rather than on the perpetrator, and in turn observers remember features of the perpetrator less accurately than when no weapon is present (Steblay, 1992).

What does this have to do with advertising? We propose that people pay more attention to violence and 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.

Why it Matters?

Among Nielsen’s 20 highest-rated television programs in the US during seasons 2009-10 through 2013-14, 39% were rated TV-14 (ages 14+) or TV-MA (ages 17+) for violent content and 42% were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for sexual content (Lull & Bushman, in press). Likewise, among the 25 most expensive programs to purchase ads during the 2014-15 season, 44% were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for violence, and 40% were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for sex (Poggi, 2014). These percentages suggest that almost half of the most popular shows contain violence or sex, and that networks capitalize on their popularity by charging advertisers highest rates to advertise in them.

Yet our analysis of published research suggests that advertising in these programs (especially violent ones) may not provide the best return on investment. It is true that many violent and sexual programs have large audiences. However, the apparent advantages of potentially larger audiences are likely lessened by the additional costs of lower brand memory, less favorable attitudes, and lower buying intentions. In other words, given equal audience sizes, we recommend advertising in nonviolent and nonsexual programs rather than violent or sexual programs.

Moving Forward

Video games and product placements are two ad contexts that merit further research, because video game ads and product placements cannot be skipped or avoided, whereas DVRs and online streaming services make it easy to skip or avoid television commercials. Yet television advertising still matters, given that it is big business.

Therefore, researchers should continue to examine television advertising. In particular, our meta-analysis found that relatively few studies have examined sexual programs, violent ads, and program/advertisement congruity. Relatively few studies have measured the mechanisms of our theoretical framework, such as attention and arousal. Psychophysiological measures may be especially useful for doing so. In conclusion, we would like to answer the question posed in the title: Sex and violence do not sell, and in fact they may even backfire by impairing memory, attitudes, and buying intentions for advertised products.


Buss, D. M., & Duntley, J. D. (2006). The evolution of aggression. In M. Schaller, J. A. Simpson, & D. T. Kenrick (Eds.), Evolution and social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

Lull, R. B., & Bushman, B. J. (in press). Do sex and violence sell? A meta-analytic review of the effects of sexual and violent media and ad content on memory, attitudes, and buying intentions. Psychological Bulletin.

Maner, J. K., Gailliot, M. T., Rouby, D. A., & Miller, S. L. (2007). Can’t take my eyes off you: Attentional adhesion to mates and rivals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 389-401. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.3.389

Maner, J. K., Kenrick, D. T., Becker, D. V., Delton, A. W., Hofer, B., Wilbur, C., & Neuberg, S. L. (2003). Sexually selective cognition: Beauty captures the mind of the beholder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1107-1120. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1107

Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., Maner, J. K., & Schaller, M. (2004). From evolved motives to everyday mentation: Evolution, goals, and cognition. In J. P. Forgas, D. W. Kipling, & W. Von Hippel (Eds.), Social motivation: Conscious and unconscious processes (pp. 133-152). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., & Schaller, M. (2010). Evolutionary social psychology. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th Edition, pp. 761-796). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Steblay, N. M. (1992). A meta-analytic review of the weapon focus effect. Law and Human Behavior, 16, 413-424. doi: 10.1007/BF02352267

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