It turns out that sex may not sell after all — at least at the movies.
A recent study concluded that nudity and explicit sex scenes don't translate to success for major motion pictures.
"Sex Doesn't Sell — nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema" examined more than 900 films released between 2001 and 2005.
The study found that, contrary to popular belief, sex and nudity failed to positively affect a film's popularity among viewers or critics and did not guarantee big box office receipts.
One of the study's co-authors, Dean Keith Simonton, said theirs was the largest sample of its kind used for film research. The results surprised him, he said.
"Sex did not sell, whether in the domestic or international box office," Simonton, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis said in news accounts. "Even among R movies, less graphic sex is better."
The top-grossing films in the study included movies like "Shrek 2;" "Spider-Man;" "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," all of which contained just minor to mild sex and/or nudity.
Simonton said the research went beyond others in that it also examined other forms of "objectionable" material that might earn a film an R rating including violence.
The study was inspired by something experienced a few years back by its co-author, Anemone Cerridwen. She had been taking acting classes and increasingly became uncomfortable with some of the sexualized content she was encountering. That led her to consider the work experiences of film actresses and the pursuit of data about the lucrativeness of sex in movies.
"I assumed sex sold, and wanted to know by how much," Cerridwen said. "I braced myself for the worst, and got quite the surprise."
Craig Detweiler, director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University, said the study's findings reflect the culture's post-sexual revolution sensibilities.
"Nothing is as shocking anymore," he told the news media. "You can see it in Britney Spears' kiss with Madonna and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance. Things that were a big controversy among some, the next generation kind of yawned at."
Rather, Detweiler said, he has seen among his students that the new form of rebellion against the older generation includes, "not doing drugs, not sleeping around and not getting divorced." That might explain the popularity of some of the Jane Austen films and movies like the "Twilight" series, he said.
"Those stories are really about sexual separation," he said. "They are all about wooing, not winning."
Tom Jacobs, staff writer for the academic research periodical Miller-McCune, wrote about the study and said there has long been the belief that the many young males who make up movie audiences are enthralled by female nudity.
"These researchers really put that belief to the test and crunched the numbers," Jacob said. "What I took from the study is that a hint of sex is perhaps more enticing than out-and-out nudity."
The study's authors hope their findings have some direct impact on moviemaking.
Simonton said he has had one inquiry from a researcher at a major studio that he declined to name, though he has no idea if the studio plans on acting on the data.
Cerridwen said she thinks movies continue to be influential on the public and believes their study could also have an influence, especially if other academics pick up the torch and continue the research. Until then, she hopes Hollywood takes notice.
"I do believe that there are a fair number of people in the film industry who want to make better films, and this study may give them some ammunition," she said. "I know that Hollywood has been trying to make more family-friendly films for a while (since the '90s) and it seems to be helping ticket sales, so my guess is that this research would complement that."
I find this study truly fascinating. I was especially intrigued by Detweiler’s assertion that his students see rebellion against us oldsters as, "not doing drugs, not sleeping around and not getting divorced." Whoa, baby!
With the entire marketing industry blatantly using sex to sell everything from toothpaste to prescription drugs for asthma control, could it be that consumers have finally become de-synthesized to flesh peddling in advertising, too? What a concept! I hope that additional studies are conducted to answer that question. It would, however, be a lot harder to measure the effectiveness of sexually oriented advertizing, because there would be nothing non-sexual to compare it to! Oh well, a person can dream.
After all, what would our popular culture become without constantly bumping and grinding our way through almost every TV commercial, magazine and newspaper adverts and the movies? Concept boggles the mind, no?
— The Curator