Iain Murray: Give us wholesome TV and we’ll digest the ads

Apparently, sex and violence on TV impair our ability to remember ads. If the big advertisers pull out, at least we can rely on the BBC for depravity, says Iain Murray

Elmer Hackenbacker couldn’t quite remember how he came to forget. It must have been round about the time that the man with the leer had triumphantly laid his straight flush on the table, and before you could say “Holy smoke”, the big blonde had licked her lips and slowly peeled off her bra.

Anyway, Elmer had clean forgot the brand name of the goddam cookie mix. If it had been Sara Lee herself taking her top off he wouldn’t have remembered. Not that Sara Lee would do that sort of thing; she wasn’t that kind of girl. Hell, she didn’t even exist.

One thing was certain: this was the last time he’d get tangled up in some cockamamie research project, 25 bucks or no 25 bucks.

Marketing Week readers may be aware that psychologists at Iowa State University have proved – to at least their own satisfaction – that viewers of TV programmes with sexually explicit or violent content are less likely to remember the commercials immediately after seeing them, and even 24 hours later.

The layperson might guess that sex and violence are such riveting subjects that they drive ads for popcorn to some less accessible recesses of the mind. And the layperson would be right. Sort of.

One explanation for the finding, says Dr Brad J Bushman, who, with Angelica M Bonacci, conducted the research, “is that people pay attention to sex and violence, thus reducing the amount of attention they can pay to the commercials.”

But that is not the only possible explanation: “Another possibility is that sexual and violent content prompt sexual and violent thoughts. Thinking about sex and violence, instead of the commercials, could reduce commercial memory.” More research is needed, adds Bushman.

Brad and Angelica have their work cut out. In the meantime, the report of their study in the Journal of Applied Psychology gives an intriguing insight into what goes on when psychologist meets guinea pig.

“Participants were 328 adults (165 men, 163 women) between the ages of 18 and 54 years. Two participants, a Baptist minister and his wife, were offended by the sexually explicit TV programme they saw (The Man Show) and left the experiment early. Data from two other men were also discarded. One became angry (for no apparent reason) and the other could not read. Both men saw Encounters With the Unexplained…

“Participants were recruited using newspaper advertisements. They received $25 in exchange for their voluntary participation.

“Participants were tested in small groups, but each worked independently on all tasks. They were told that the researchers were studying attitudes toward TV programmes. The sessions were conducted in a comfortable setting. Participants were seated in padded chairs and were given soft drinks and cookies and were thanked for their participation.”

Whoever said that academic research was dull and donnish? It must have been fun – of a suppressed kind – when the Baptist minister and his wife were seated in their padded chairs, soft drinks in hands, cookies in mouths, and the Man Show was switched on. Was there much spillage?

As for the man who became angry (for no apparent reason) after watching Encounters with the Unexplained, a “neutral” programme containing neither sex nor violence, was his unexplained behaviour influenced by the programme’s unexplained content? More research is needed.

Back to the experiment: “After giving their informed consent, participants were randomly assigned to watch a violent, sexually explicit, or neutral television programme. Each of the programmes contained the same ads for products with “broad market appeal”, for example drinks, snacks and detergent. A die was rolled to determine the programme to be shown… The six sexually explicit programmes were Strip Poker, X-Show, Howard Stern, Son of the Beach, The Man Show, and Strip Mall.”

After viewing the programmes, participants were given a “surprise test”. The surprise was that after sitting through Strip Poker and all that might entail, they were asked about the ads. Unsurprisingly, it was not the ads they remembered.

In contrast, those participants for whom the die had rolled unfavourably slumbered peacefully through programmes such as Miracle Pets, yet remembered the ads.

In conclusion, Bushman and Bonacci say it is unlikely that moral appeals from parents and other concerned citizens will reduce the amount of violence and sex on TV: “The bottom line – profits – actually determines what programmes are shown on television. If advertisers refused to sponsor them, violent and sexually explicit TV programmes would become extinct. According to former CBS programming chief Jeff Sagansky: ‘The number one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers.’ These findings suggest that advertisers should think twice about sponsoring violent and sexually explicit TV programmes.”

Not in the UK, however, where, thanks to public service broadcasting as interpreted by the BBC, sex and violence are sponsored not by advertisers but by a poll tax levied on every household in the land. That’s why we have the best television in the world.

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