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Sexy TV Programming Stymies Viewers' Recall of Commercials

Television advertisers will pay immense sums of money to ensure a captive audience. A 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, for example, can cost upward of $2 million, but it may be viewed by more than 130 million potential buyers. If viewers don't remember the commercial, however, it is not money well spent. Now research published in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that advertisers may want to rethink where they place their spots. According to the report, viewers of TV shows with sexually explicit subject matter are less likely to recall commercials than are people who watch programming devoid of sexual content.

Previous research had demonstrated that violence in television shows had a negative impact on viewers' recall of commercials aired during the program. To test whether sex on TV had a similar effect, Brad J. Bushman and Angelica M. Bonacci of Iowa State University recruited 324 adults to watch a violent, a sexually explicit or a neutral television program. The researchers placed the same nine ads for products such as soft drinks, laundry detergent and cereal in all of the shows. Immediately after viewing a program, the subjects were tested on their recollection of the commercial messages; and additional questions further tested their recall of the ad spots a day later. The team found that both violent and sexual content impaired memory of ads for men and women of all ages, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the program.

Bushman and Bonacci are unsure why, exactly, people miss out on commercials if they have been viewing sexy or violent shows. It's possible that people focus on the sex and violence, thereby decreasing the amount of attention they can devote to commercials. Alternatively, sexual or violent content can spark sexual or violent thoughts that may interfere with watching commercials observantly. Whatever the cause, the findings may give advertisers pause. "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 authors conclude. "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 become extinct."

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