Sexy, violent TV shows reduce recall of ad brands, U-M study shows

August 07, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Advertising on television shows with violent or sexual content is bad business, a new University of Michigan study confirms.

The study, an invited presentation Aug. 7 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, shows that viewers are less likely to remember the brand of advertised products when the ads are shown in sexually explicit and violent programs.

"If the TV program bleeds, memory for the brand recedes," said Brad Bushman, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research, the world's largest academic survey and research organization. "We found that people are 19 percent less likely to remember the same ad if it is embedded in a violent or sexually explicit show."

Bushman, who conducted the study of 324 viewers with Iowa State University graduate student Angelica Bonacci, has conducted numerous studies showing that violent and sexually explicit programming interferes with people's memory for ads both immediately after watching a TV show and a day later. The new findings confirm the earlier empirical work and extend it by showing that brand recall is not improved by matching the ad type to the program type.

For the study, Bonacci and Bushman, who is also affiliated with the U-M communication studies and psychology departments, asked men and women to watch a violent, sexually explicit or neutral television program taped from cable television channels. Some of the 18 shows used included "World Wrestling Federation Monday Night Nitro," "Strip Poker" and "Miracle Pets." The ads originally embedded in the program were edited out and replaced with violent, sexual and neutral versions of ads for actual products. After viewing the 40-45 minute TV program, participants were asked to recall the brand names of the advertised products (e.g., jeans, soft drinks and snacks) in any order they wanted.

The researchers found that brand recall was 17 percent higher for participants who saw a neutral program than for those who saw a violent program, and 21 percent higher for participants who saw a neutral program than for those who saw a sexual program.

They also found that violent ads were 20 percent less memorable than the sexual ads and 18 percent less memorable than the neutral ads, regardless of the type of ad in the program. "These memory differences can't be attributed to brand familiarity because brand was held constant across type of ad," Bushman said.

The research also showed that type of program did not interact with type of ad to influence memory for ads. "Showing violent or sexual ads in violent or sexual programs doesn't make the ads more memorable," Bushman said. "The bottom line is that matching ad type to program type doesn't change the basic fact that people are less likely to remember brands advertised in violent and sexually explicit programs. Sex and violence just don't sell, in other words."
Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive.

University of Michigan

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