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Violence and Sex for Greater Recall


In today’s digital world, advertising agencies are constantly trying to develop new campaign strategies for promoting a company’s product. The essential goal is to embed that product into consumers’ minds so that they will eventually buy the item. Due to successful advertising campaigns, we are all familiar with the Geico gecko and Flo from progressive (it is a love-hate relationship with Flo, to say the least). Consumer behavior relies on the buyers’ memory processes and the abilities of the buyers to remember the product they perceived via advertisements. In television advertisements, specifically, strategists and designers must consider several things when designing commercials presented between shows. Not only must strategists and designers successfully convey the details of their particular product, but companies must also keep their audience interested so that they will attend to the commercial. Without attending to the commercial, people will be less likely to remember the item shown on-screen.

Advertising agencies have implemented all sorts of strategies for their commercials. One study, by Ferguson and colleagues, examined the usage of violence and sex as a strategy in television commercials. Violence and sex in commercials has been a controversial issue, to say the least – just take a look at this commercial from GoDaddy that the company tried to air during the 2005 Superbowl: http://goo.gl/ZgUIt. FOX network decided against airing this commercial, which referenced Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction incident, for as you can see it is quite inappropriate for many viewers. If you are seeing that commercial for the first time, you must be shocked that a company would attempt to use such advertising tactics on national television. Although the use of violence and sex in commercials quite a debate, there may actually be some benefit to using violence and/or sexual content in commercials as a way to increase brand recall.

Ferguson et al. investigated whether or not the television show prior to commercials had any impact on the memory for commercials and motivation to buy the products, or if the violence and sex in the commercials themselves were the main factors in increasing memory for brand recall. The study included 212 college students who were instructed to watch either a violent, sexual, combined sexual and violent, or neutral television show. Embedded within the show were 12 commercials promoting today’s well-known brands (see tables below for the violent and sexual ads); four violent, four sexual, and four neutral commercials were presented.

Brands with Violent Commercials Take a look at example ads from these brands!
Nike http://goo.gl/HQBzS 
Reebok http://goo.gl/2f9DZ
John West Salmon http://goo.gl/mXEv3
Federal Express http://goo.gl/tU1t9
Sexual Commercials Take a look at example from these brands!
Victoria’s Secret http://goo.gl/Kfi2W
Bud Light http://goo.gl/RiEyz
Axe http://goo.gl/IT4U8
Microsoft Office XP http://goo.gl/viBAv

Following the viewing session, participants were then asked to recall as many of those commercials as they could remember, as well as rate on a 5-point scale how likely they were to buy those products in the remembered commercials in the future. Ferguson et al. observed that the type of television show presented did not influence memory for commercials or willingness to purchase the advertised products. The study revealed a significant association with commercial content and memory of the commercial. Participants were more likely to remember the commercials if they contained violent or sexual material (to test this yourself, which commercials do you remember watching from the links above?). The willingness to buy the material at the time of testing was not impacted by the content in the commercial.

Although there was not a major difference in recall between violent and/or sexual and neutral commercials, the results still indicate an important association that advertising companies want to take advantage of. While the study indicated minimal influence of the commercial’s content to the willingness to buy the product at that time, it must be kept in mind that companies ultimately hope to familiarize the product in your memory first. Through attending to these commercials and increasing memory for these brand names, advertising agencies are one step closer to greater sales of their products. Considering the controversial nature of sex and violence, hopefully advertising agencies reach alternative methods of strategy for marketing!

Ferguson, C. J., Cruz, A. M., Martinez, D., Rueda, S. M., & Ferguson, D. E. (2010). Violence and sex as advertising strategies in television commercials. European Psychologist, 15(4), 304-311. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000016

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  1. jwlester
    October 7th, 2014 at 13:39 | #1

    “Sex Sells” is a phrase the common person hears all too often. Clearly, we involve ourselves in the provocative, the stuff that plays to our instinct to have sex and fight (probably to have sex). The fact that sex and violence draws in an audience is shown in the fact that I–and others–clicked on this post!
    I like how Hannah declares that the idea of advertising is to “embed the product in the consumers’ minds”. This made me think of how often I see certain, discretely placed advertisements, especially in sports. I watch a lot of action sports (like mountain biking, skiing, surfing, B.A.S.E. jumping). With no ‘TV’ time to insert commercials into (the preferred medium is short youtube videos) and few leagues or organizations to financially support athletes, the action sports world is fueled by incessant sponsorship from a company to an athlete. Athletes represent their sponsors with branded gear and logos pasted everywhere. Red Bull is one of the most common sponsors, and they have perfected the art of ingraining their logo and brand inevery viewer’s mind. There may not be many Red Bull commercials running, but when those two red words appear so often on a helmet or parachute, its impossible to forget about the energy drink.
    Red Bull demonstrates a positive influence on sports, but as Sara mentioned in her comment, companies often use “negative salient emotions”, like the violence involved in some of the examples from Hannah’s post. I think there is powerful psychological reason for this. We have just begun memory, but the idea of Flashbulb memories has already emerged as an aspect of Persistence of memory. These intense moments we remember well ‘intrude’ into life in times that they may not be welcome or even only triggered by a small event. This is congruent with the goal of advertising, as Hannah said “companies ultimately hope to familiarize the product in your memory first” so that their product may pop up everywhere.

  2. May 14th, 2013 at 14:29 | #2

    This article is quite interesting, but I’m not surprised that companies are using these tactics to try and get people to buy their products. Remembering a commercial is essential to getting people to buy the product, because when they are in the store later on, they will recognize that product from the commercial and may be more likely to buy it. Using shock tactics with sex and violence is obviously effective for better memory, but it is unfortunate that companies have resorted to this. I remember reading something a long time ago that said the reason why you see the same commercials over and over is because after you see something 7 times (or something like that), you are more likely to buy it because it will be in your long-term memory. It is interesting that memory, but not necessarily product appeal, is the ultimate goal for advertisers. Cool post!

  3. kjdonova
    April 30th, 2013 at 19:59 | #3

    This is a really interesting topic! I never really thought about why I remember certain commercials more than others and how adding this such as violence or sexual content can increase my memory for one particular product or advertisement. This reminds me of hearing someone say that McDonald’s logo is aimed to make people want to stop at their chains. Something to do with the colors used as well as the shape of the M. It amazes me that something so simple as violence or color can increase memory and/or attractiveness of an item or place. I have a new respect for the advertising companies because of all the efforts and research they do in order to increase the chances of their products being remembered and liked by us consumers.

  4. April 27th, 2013 at 21:19 | #4

    I find this interesting as well as slightly sad. It seems like advertising companies prey on what could be considered salient emotions, and in this case, negative salient emotions. I wonder if perhaps it is just as effective to prey on more positive salient emotions, such as humor. It would be interesting to know if anyone has done any studies to see how positive salient emotions affect remembrance.

  5. April 24th, 2013 at 23:05 | #5

    I find this topic to be very interesting. As mentioned, it is important that advertising efforts are successful in selling products. One way to successfully sell a product is by having potential consumers remember the item for sale. I am sure much controversy surrounds the use of violence and sex to increase recall, but marketers are certainly taking advantage of what is know to be effective in memory recall. Often, when thinking of advertising, we do not consider all of the processes that go into creating an ad. More specifically, I find it very interesting that cognitive psychology and memory recall has a place in advertisement efforts. Though this is broad conclusion, I believe that this shows how applicable course material for any subject is to the real world, though it may not be immediately evident to us as students. I too, hope that they are able to find equally effective, alternative methods for memory recall. Very interesting post!

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