Coming Soon, Hopefully: Less Sexy Commercials

by ParentCo. July 12, 2017

mother and two children sitting on sofa at home watching TV together

We’re all familiar with the endless warnings to parents about the dangers of kids surfing the Internet unsupervised. We’ve fielded (or skillfully avoided) preschoolers’ curious questions about why that grandpa in the magazine ad looks so happy about his little blue pills. We’ve cringed at the risqué advertisements that pop up during what would otherwise be a family-friendly Super Bowl game. Letting the little ones watch TV or click around online while you make a speedy trip to the toilet can end with questions you don’t want to answer (at least not yet). When your wide-eyed preschooler demands an explanation for why “that mommy and daddy were wrestling in the bathtub,” you know you’ve got a problem on your hands. Solutions are piecemeal, and they vary based on the form of mass media in question. Freestanding or traveling billboards, for example, offer few options for parents who want to shield young eyes from sketchy content. Advertising bombarding kids via TV and the Internet, on the other hand, better lend themselves to application of parental controls. For Internet-based concerns, net nanny type parental control software helps, but it’s not perfect. Marketers are clever, and they are constantly at work to evade systems put in place to thwart them. So it’s largely a matter when, not if, something unwelcome makes its way past that software. In addition, if it’s not set up properly, it can block legitimate sites your kid might need to access for homework purposes. For TV, it often comes down to limiting your viewing to kid-specific channels. Unless it’s Disney Jr., Nick Junior, PBS Kids or similar, you take your chances. And that chance-taking includes networks that would seemingly be kid-friendly, but actually include frankly adult programming in the late evening and wee hours of the morning (e.g., Cartoon Network). For some who want as close to 100 percent effectiveness as possible, the only reliable option is to be physically present at that keyboard or TV literally every second the kids are using it. Up to pre-school age, that’s pretty do-able. But as soon as they hit upper elementary, sometimes even before then, that safety practice can get very unwieldy very quickly. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we’re perpetually peppered with sex-soaked ads across the media spectrum? The answer is not exactly an industry secret. Sex sells. We know it. Marketers know it. They’ve known it since the dawn of time. But what if they only assumed sex sells. What if they were wrong? The jury’s in, and the news is great. They were indeed wrong. Sex actually doesn’t sell, and Science just showed up to prove it. In his meta-analysis of published research on the topic, John Wirtz found that sexual appeal in advertisements had no statistically significant effect on brand recognition and recall. Further, sexual appeal in ads had no effect on intention to buy and even had a negative effect on brand attitude. And Dr. Wirtz should know. Wirtz is a professor in the Charles H. Sandage Advertising Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne’s College of Media. The major findings of Wirtz’s ground-breaking research, though counter-intuitive, are plain as day. And they should send shock waves through the advertising world which has relied on a mistaken assumption for a very long time. So what does this mean for parents, who would really, really like to be able to run to the bathroom for 20 seconds while their third grader watches a seemingly innocuous clip of the latest Disney movie online? Well, that depends. It depends on how quickly advertisers wise up to Wirtz’s research. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later. And given their financial motives, it’s a good guess that marketers will quickly shift their strategies to accommodate this revelation. If sex doesn’t sell, that means they need to find out what does, and to start funneling those dollars in a different direction. Eventually, this should mean fewer sex-based ads for your child to stumble upon. Until marketers adapt, though, you’d better keep that bathroom door ajar. With any luck, by the time they’re off to college, you’ll be able to breathe more easily. Then again. . .



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