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Brad Bushman, Psychology, (515) 294-1472
Steve Sullivan, News Service, (515) 294-3720


AMES, Iowa -- Television programs free of sex and violence may be an advertiser's best bet, according to a new Iowa State University study.

The study indicates that sex and violence impairs memory of television ads, said Brad Bushman, Iowa State professor of psychology. Bushman, a nationally recognized expert on the effects of media violence, conducted the study with Iowa State graduate student Angelica Bonacci.

The study involved 162 men and 162 women ages 18-54. They were randomly assigned to watch violent, sexually explicit or neutral programming. The neutral category included programming currently airing on PAX TV, a network known for programming free of violence and sex. Each program contained the same nine ads for products with broad market appeal, including soft drinks, breakfast cereals, snack foods and laundry detergent.

Participants were asked to recall the brands advertised immediately after and the day after viewing the program. They also were shown collections of slide images and asked to recognize the products immediately after viewing the programs. Results showed better memory scores for people who saw the ads in a "neutral program," than for people who saw the ads in a program containing sexual or violent content. On average "neutral" programming had a 39 percent advantage over violent and sexual programming. Commercial memory was similar for violent and sexual programming.

"Violence and sex impaired memory for males and females of all ages, and for people who liked and did not like to watch televised violence and sex," said Bushman.

The findings of the new study echo previous studies that have shown how television violence impaired memory of ads. However, no previous research has tested whether sexual content impairs memory of ads.

The research also appears to reinforce a theory called "cognitive neoassociation," said Bushman. According to this theory, scenes of violence and sex in television programs can prime other related thoughts in memory. In other words, if viewers are thinking about the violence and sex they have just seen on the screen, they will be less likely to think about the commercial messages.

"What we are finding is that when people watch a program with violence or sex, they think about violence and sex," said Bushman. "The sex and violence registers much more strongly than the messages the advertisers are hoping to deliver."

Bushman hopes that the advertising industry takes notice of the growing evidence that violent and sexual programming greatly diminishes the impact their messages.

"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 bottom line -- profits -- really determines what programs are shown on television," said Bushman. "Our findings suggest that advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexually explicit TV programs. During the time that advertisers hope viewers are thinking about their ads, they might actually be thinking instead about violence and sex."


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