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Sex And Violence Don't Ad Up

Sexually explicit and violent TV shows keep viewers from remembering the ads

MONDAY, June 17, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're a corporate executive looking to peddle your product on TV, skip shows laced with sex or violence.

That's the conclusion of a new study from Iowa State University that says sexually explicit or violent shows make viewers less likely to remember commercials that aired during the program.

"Watching violence and sex impairs the memory," says Brad Bushman, study author and a professor of psychology at Iowa State. The research appears in the new issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers had 324 men and women, aged 18 to 54, watch either a violent, sexually explicit or "neutral" television show. Violent shows included: "La Femme Nikita," "Martial Law," "Toughman," "World Wrestling Federation Monday Night Nitro," "Tour of Duty," or "Millennium." Sexually explicit programs included: "Strip Poker," "The X-Show," "Howard Stern," "Son of the Beach," "The Man Show," and "Strip Mall."

Neutral shows included: "Encounters with the Unexplained," "It's a Miracle," "Mysterious Ways," "Miracle Pets," "Candid Camera," and "Doc."

Each program contained nine ads for products with broad market appeal, including soft drinks, cereal and laundry detergent.

Immediately after viewing the program, participants were given a surprise test in which they tried to recall the brands advertised in the commercials. The participants were asked to recall the ads again 24 hours after watching the show.

The researchers found that people who watched the programs containing violence and sex recalled 67 percent fewer brands, both immediately after the show and 24 hours later.

For years, there's been an ongoing debate among social scientists and the media industry about the degree to which television effects thought, attitudes and behavior.

On the one hand, Bushman says, "Networks claim a 30-second commercial can sell anything from a political candidate to a box a cereal." On the other hand, "they claim the hours of programming surrounding those commercials have no effect on viewers. It's a paradox."

Bushman admits he has an agenda -- cleaning up television. Other research shows violence and sexually explicit television can have harmful effects on society, he says.

"There is emerging literature that shows sexually explicit media promotes sexual callousness, cynical attitudes about love and marriage, and perceptions that promiscuity is the norm," he says. "And violent media is linked to aggression. Of course, it's not the only factor that causes violence in society, but it's an important factor."

Bushman hopes advertisers will read studies such as his and reconsider the programs they support with their advertising dollars. "There would be no violence and sex on TV if people refused to sponsor it," he says.

Neil Malamuth, a professor of communications and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says he's not surprised by the study's findings. Previous research has shown that gory, outrageous or sexually explicit materials "grabs the attention" so powerfully that it makes it difficult for the brain to process other information.

"If you have sex and violence in the media, you might get more of an audience, but you get less attention to the advertising," Malamuth says.

What To Do

To read more about the issue of sex and violence in the media, check the Community Learning Network. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has information on the effect of sex and violence on TV on children and how to keep them from watching it.

SOURCES: Brad Bushman, Ph.D., professor, psychology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; Neil Malamuth, Ph.D., professor, communications and psychology, University of California, Los Angeles; June 2002 Journal of Applied Psychology
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