Does Sex and Violence Really Sell Products?

Ninety-eight percent of American homes have TV sets, which means the people in the other 2% have to generate their own sex and violence.  George Baylos

Why is there so much sex and violence in movies and television?   While American television and movies are far less likely to allow actual nudity than other countries, jokes and innuendos about human sexuality are a common feature despite attempts at censoring sexually explicit content.   Media studies report that well over half of all television shows contain sexual references that are meant to titillate and attract viewers.   Despite this flood of sexual content, there are still curious inconsistencies surrounding the sexual messages that we often see.  While advertisers have no problem using sex to sell everything from shampoo to hotel rooms, we are far more likely to see commercials about Viagra than birth control.   This seems like a sad state of affairs considering the popularity of "abstinence-only" programs in many parts of the country and the total refusal of many parents to provide their children with sex education information.

And then there is the violence that seems to be a major feature in most movies and television programs.  On average, children from two to eleven will spend twenty to thirty hours a week in front of a television set and this still doesn't allow for the time spent playing video games or watching movies.    Media research suggests that children will seen an average of 200,000 violent crimes and 16,000 murders by the age of eighteen.   In fact, shows aimed at children are often more violent than adult oriented television though the question of whether violent content in the media leads to violence in children is still controversial.

Whatever your views on sex and violence on television and movies, the widespread belief that sex and violence will sell products helps explain why this kind of media programming is so popular.  As former CBS and NBC programming president Jeff Sagansky once pointed out, “The number one priority in television is not to transmit quality programming to viewers, but to deliver consumers to advertisers. We aren’t going to get rid of violence until we get rid of advertisers”     Among the twenty-five most expensive television programs for advertisers in the 2014-2015 season, forty-four were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for violence and forty percent were rated TV-14 or TV-MA for sex.    

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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