Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Sex, violence, focus groups and pop-ups

April 7th, 2011

Escalator advertising, TaipeiQuiz time! What do the four subjects of this heading have in common?

(a) They’re all titles of award-winning films.

(b) They’re all part of a complete breakfast.

(c) They’re all failures in the world of persuasion.

If you didn’t guess (c), either you’re not paying attention or you’re more, um, unusual than most of my readers. And please don’t invite me for breakfast.

Explosion (Movie Park Germany)A hunt for research about influencing people is bound to come across a few techniques that don’t work, despite widespread belief in them. It turns out that sex and violence are both in that category, at least as far as advertising goes.

Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham tested the persuasive ability of sexually suggestive advertising by having their study participants watch either an episode of the family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle or a particularly sexually explicit episode of the adult comedy/drama Sex and the City. During the commercial breaks, half the participants in both groups saw ads with high sexual content while the rest saw ads with low sexual content.

Focus Group for Spanish woman wear company (China Bay - Shanghai, China)Which ads were remembered best? It turns out that participants who viewed ads with sexual content had no better recall of the products being advertised than those who saw non-sexual ads. And those ads shown during Sex and the City were even less memorable, apparently because the sexual content of the show overshadowed the memory of the commercials.

This isn’t the only evidence. In his book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom reported on research showing that sexual stimuli can interfere with an ad’s sales message: only half as many study participants remembered a brand or product when the ads for it contained sexual content. So much for sex.

Research by Brad Bushman also found that sexual advertising was remembered no better than non-sexual advertising. However, Bushman also tested commercials containing violence and found that they were noticeably less memorable than other commercials. So much for violence.

What about focus groups? Gathering a group of people and asking them questions can be a useful start when you’re creating a survey or questionnaire, but it doesn’t appear to produce accurate results when you’re asking people to judge your new product.

I couldn’t find any studies on how well focus groups work, but it’s been argued that focus group participants make snap decisions with little information, are unlikely to be completely honest, and don’t know their own real preferences.

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely has spoken out against the use of focus groups more than once. In his own blog, he wrote,

Research in psychology and behavioral economics has shown time after time that people have bad intuitions. We are very good at explaining our behavior (sometimes shocking and irrational), and to do so we create neatly packaged stories – stories that may be amusing or provocative, but often have little to do with the real causes of our behaviors… This “focus group bias” is not just a waste of money, it is also most likely a waste of resources when products are designed according to the “information” gathered from these focus groups.

So much for focus groups.

And pop-ups – those obnoxious ads that appear in a new window while we’re browsing the web? A recent article confirmed that we don’t like them at all and came up with some good suggestions for making them palatable (“be nice and polite and don’t make yourself a nuisance”).

Until designers start taking those suggestions, however, I think all pop-ups should include half-naked women blowing things up. Hey, if you’re going to fail, fail big.

7 comments on 'Sex, violence, focus groups and pop-ups'

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  1. Rachel

    7 Apr 11 at 8:12 am

    This is interesting, but the studies of sex and violence in adverts look at how memorable they are. I know this is the way advertisers usually evaluate their ads, but the point is not to make people remember the product, is it? The point is to make them buy it.

    One small step researchers could take would be to include measures of ‘liking’ as well as memorability in their studies, but they rarely do.


    Carol Reply:

    You’re absolutely right. Adding measurements of ‘liking’ to the questions asked of study participants would help, but even liking doesn’t always correlate with purchasing; sometimes the people admiring a product aren’t actually in the market for one. Until they figure out a way to correlate long-term purchasing behaviour with long-term ad exposure, we’re stuck with these indirect measures.

    I suppose my purpose in writing this post was to point out that some techniques may not be worth my readers’ while if they’re searching for new tactics. But it’s true that we can’t be certain that they don’t work on some level. Thanks for commenting!


  2. Hi all,

    I loved all of these posts. A lot of these things we have, but I got some really great ideas.


    Carol Reply:

    Um… you didn’t read this post, did you. Spambot, anyone?


  3. Jacquie

    27 May 11 at 4:00 pm

    Spambots, there’s another marketing failure. What do you mean, you don’t want to click the link?

    Do you know of any studies on humour in adverts? I’m thinking of the Budweiser frogs/lizards/etc. Not sure how effective they were in beer sales but they were certainly memorable!


    Carol Reply:

    I did a post on how humour can make people more likely to cooperate and compromise, but it didn’t mention advertising. However, a quick search did find at least one article on humour in advertising, so I’ll probably do a post on it in the future. Thanks for the idea!


  4. Clemente Gregston

    21 Aug 11 at 1:06 am

    Thank you, I’ve recently been searching for details concerning this topic for ages and yours is the ideal I have located up to now.


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