Bad Business: Viewers Tune Out Ads on Violent Shows

AMES, Iowa — It's harder to remember a commercial if it interrupts a violent program.

That was the striking conclusion of new research conducted by Brad Bushman, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

Bushman's previous research also focused on violence and aggression. He had already found that violent shows increase their audiences’ anger and belligerence, so now he wanted to find out how those psychological changes would affect mental processes like memory.

What he found should come as an unpleasant surprise to the companies that spend millions to buy precious airtime on programs like “WWF Smackdown!” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Bushman compiled and reviewed 12 studies, four of which he had conducted himself. In one study, over 2,000 men and women watched clips from either a violent movie such as “Die Hard,” “Single White Female,” or “Karate Kid III,” or a nonviolent movie such as “Field of Dreams,” “Awakenings,” or “Chariots of Fire.” The clips were shown with commercials for such products as Wisk detergent or Krazy Glue.

The psychologist found that the people who had watched violent movie clips had a harder time remembering details of the advertisements — and, more importantly for corporations, they couldn't recall the brand names either.

Bushman said the results were the same whether the audience was men or women, young or old. It didn't matter whether the audience enjoyed violent programs or disliked them.

Even the message of the movie or television show didn't matter. A violent but lighthearted action flick had the same memory-blocking effect as a grim and violent drama.

Some researchers have criticized Bushman's study. John Eighmey, professor and chairman of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, argued that the ads were the problem, not the violent shows. He told the Iowa State Daily, “Any time you show drama against boredom, you're going to find a difference. I'm not surprised that violence would win against Wisk.”

Bushman hopes to test that hypothesis in a new study, mixing-and-matching boring and exciting ads with violent and nonviolent shows.

But pending that additional research, Bushman offers what he sees as the reason behind his results. “Viewing violence triggers aggressive thoughts,” he told the Register. “People in a bad mood usually try to improve their mood, and it takes a lot of effort and energy to improve a bad mood.”

That energy is taken from other mental tasks like memory. Bushman added, “If people are thinking about other things they're less likely to think about the commercial messages.”

A Smack for Smackdown

Some companies that advertise on violent shows say that they have little control over where their ads go. The Subway sandwich shop chain, for example, stated in a letter concerning their ads on “WWF Smackdown!” that, “We as advertisers do not always know the content of a program before it airs. For this and other reasons, the American Association of Advertising Agencies encourages individuals to voice their concerns directly to the networks or local stations, rather than to the advertisers.”

But Bushman said that a few advertisers had contacted him about his research, and one had even decided to pull its ads from violent programs as a result of his study.

For Bushman, an advertiser's decision to buy airtime only on non-violent programs is the right decision morally as well as financially. “Viewing violence increases aggression in society,” he said.

Papa John's pizza company agrees. Papa John's, like many national advertisers, yanked their ads from “WWF Smackdown!” after they were alerted to its violent content, which includes wrestlers wrapping each other in barbed wire. “Smackdown!” also trades in crass and sexually explicit fare — one episode, for example, showed a topless woman barely covering herself with dollar bills.

Those images prompted both Papa John's and Domino's Pizza to pull their ads. Syl Sosnowski, vice president of marketing for Papa John's, said, “We view ourselves as a wholesome product aimed for the family. We avoid any kind of programming that is outright violent, [that has] gratuitous sexual content or the liberal use of profanity and vulgarity.”

Sosnowski said that Papa John's didn't make its decision based on consumer pressure or financial concerns.

In fact, he noted, “We received lots of negative e-mails” from “Smackdown!” fans. “This is about our brand image, what we stand for,” he said.

According to Prof. Bushman, it's also smart business.

Bushman plans to broaden his research by looking at the effects of sexually explicit programs on memory. He also wants to “focus more on why the effects occur, what people are thinking as they're watching.”

Bushman said, “I love to challenge prevalent beliefs that may be false, such as the belief that violence sells.”