UCL News


Don't worry about censorship

27 July 2006

Don't worry about censorship, all that panting and punching just puts TV viewers off the ads, says Adrian Furnham [Professor, UCL Psychology].

It is probably true that there is more sex and violence on television these days. But definitions change over time. Sex may be little more than suggestive innuendo with soft focus shots and a bit of grunting. Equally, telling people that you perhaps do not believe their parents were married is now supposedly an act of interpersonal violence.

Nudity is not sex, boxing is not violence. Most of us know what sex and violence on television is even if lawyers and academics don't. But is sex and violence a marketing opportunity or a no-go area for marketing? Programmes with a hint of rumpy-pumpy may attract large audiences. Programmes with violence, be it verbal or physical, gratuitous or 'contextually appropriate', can mean certain groups may be watching.

And what if the ads that interrupt these programmes are sexy or violent? Yes, there are many constraints on what you can portray in ads. There are not only industry guidelines and legal constraints, there is also an army of self-appointed moral guardians who bombard complaint desks if they don't like what they see. Paradoxically, because all publicity is good publicity these objected-to ads must draw more attention to products than those not targeted for complaint. …

Media psychologists have researched this question: do sexy/violent ads and/or sexy/violent programmes make product more memorable. In the US people were asked to watch either a sexy, violent or neutral programme containing the same advert embedded within it. They found that violence and sex in the programme impaired memory for ads. It was thought there were two reasons for this, governed both by the heart and the head. First, sex and violence demands more attention than neutral programmes so there is less 'cognitive programming space'' to process the ads. Second, powerful emotions brought on by these programmes also distract people from ads. So sex and violence in surrounding programmes don't sell products in ads because they reduce the possibility that viewers recall brand images. …

So what's the bottom-line? First, advertisers need not get too worked up about the sex and violence constraints. Sex doesn't sell that well. Second, beware placing your ads in highly involving programmes. And remember that with too much visual cleverness the audience may remember the ad and not the product.

'The Daily Telegraph' 27 July 2006