Debunking the “Sex Sells” Myth

Written by PTC | Published March 25, 2013

Culturally, the first decade of the 21st century may be remembered primarily for adding “sexting” to our lexicon, for the mainstreaming of pornography, and for trashy reality TV shows where sex is treated like a competitive sport; but the backlash is building. A recent story in the UK’s Sunday Times indicates that sex scenes have been deliberately cut from movie scripts over the last year and half, as movie producers have come to realize that such scenes can actually hurt the bottom line. According to Vincent Bruzzese, president of the movie division of Ipsos, a market research firm, “Sex scenes used to be written, no matter the plot, to spice up a trailer. But all that does today is get a film an adult-only rating and lose a younger audience. Today such scenes are written out by producers before they are even shot.” That such content might actually drive away viewers, rather than attracting them, is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. A recent study examining sexual content and the profitability of over 900 films over a five year period found that sex not only doesn’t sell, it may actually hinder a film’s success, both domestically and abroad, even after controlling for MPAA rating and budget. Top-grossing films, according to the study’s authors, all contained mostly minor to mild sex and/or nudity. Even among R-rated movies, those with less graphic sex performed better. According to co-author Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, “The most the market can apparently handle is PG-13 sexuality, and even there, there may be a loss relative to PG or even G.” Over the years, a series of studies produced by the Dove Foundation analyzing box office receipts for major motion pictures have found that G- and PG-rated films consistently out-perform PG-13- and R-rated films. In reality, the hoary cliché that “sex-sells” is little more than a self-serving justification employed by Hollywood writers, directors and producers who want to push the envelope. These so-called “taste-makers” don’t really want to deliver what audiences are looking for. But it seems they no longer have any choice. For studios to stay competitive and stop hemorrhaging money, they actually need to deliver what audiences want, and that, it seems, is less obtrusive sexual content.

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