It turns out the marketing industry's oldest adage isn't true: Sex doesn't sell

Emma Haslett
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Sexy ads, such as this hunk advertising Southern Comfort, do little more than distract consumers... (Source: Southern Comfort)

Don Draper had it wrong all along, it turns out: a new study has found not only does sex not sell, but it actually distracts people from the products on sale.

The study, by Ohio State University and published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, looked at the results of 53 different experiments involving nearly 8,500 people, done over 44 years. It found that when products are placed in the context of sex or violence, people are so busy focusing on those aspects they pay less attention to the advertising messages appearing alongside it.

The study involved various types of media - from print to TV, movies and even video games. In cases where sex or violence were involved, people's memory for brands and ads was "significantly impaired", they found.

Advertising in what the authors euphemistically described as "sexual media" is also a bad idea - people are so distracted by what's going on in the show/on the website/in the magazine, they have "less favourable attitudes" towards ads.

"People reported less intention to buy brands that were advertised in media containing violence, sex or both, compared to the same brands in media containing no violence," the study explained.

The only caveat? If, the media content and the ad content were matched in terms of sex and violence.

"If a TV programme prompts violent or sexual thoughts, an ad that prompts similar thoughts will be better remembered," said Robert Lull, one of the report's co-authors.

And the study's findings are becoming increasingly less true as time goes on - it found memory impairments and negative attitudes towards brands featured in violent or sexual ads have actually decreased over the decades, which could be to do with consumers becoming more used to sexual and violent imagery.

Still: Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State, said the findings were pretty clear-cut.

"Advertisers shouldn't be so sure that sex and violence can help them sell their products," he said. Sorry, advertisers...

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