Sexual and violent imagery in movie previews: effects on viewers' perceptions and anticipated enjoyment.

Author:Oliver, Mary Beth

Television programs, movies, video games, and the Internet all provide consumers with a multitude of entertaining diversions, with competition for viewers' attention arguably at an all-time high. In terms of motion picture entertainment specifically, the importance of media promotion is evidenced in terms of the sheer amount of money spent on movie marketing. In 2004, member companies of the Motion Picture Association of America spent an average of $30 million per film on advertising (MPAA Research Development, 2005). Research concerning the role of motion picture promotion on viewers' preferences also supports the notion that movie previews play an important role in entertainment-selection decisions. For example, Faber and O'Guinn (1984) found that consumers rated movie trailers as more useful, important, and influential sources of information than any other type of media or interpersonal source with regard to their movie selections.

With the importance of movie promotion resulting in what is an arguable "glut" of movie previews, what types of portrayals succeed in making movies appealing to viewers, or at least making them more appealing than other movies that are also promoted? At first glance, the answer to this question may seem obvious: Movie previews contain content that reflects what one can expect to encounter when viewing the actual motion picture. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that producers of movie previews also typically attempt to appeal to a teenage demographic, and, as such, tend to emphasize what this demographic is thought to enjoy--namely sexual and violent portrayals. As one movie marketer explained, "The objective of nearly every movie trailer is to get teenage boys' butts into seats ... And that means going for as much violence and sex as you can jam into 2 1/2 minutes" (Streisand, 1999, p. 57). Such statements are consistent with the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) landmark report (2000) which argued that movie producers use these elements (particularly violence) to target specific audiences and to presumably enhance audience interest. They are also consonant with Oliver and Kalyanaraman's (2002) content analysis of movie previews reporting that approximately 76% of the previews in their sample featured at least one act of aggression (with an average of 2.5 aggressive acts per minute), and that 56% of the previews featured at least one sexual scene (with an average of 1.5 sexual scenes per minute).

Given the prevalence of motion picture marketing and the important role that promotion is thought to play in viewers' selection of entertainment, the purpose of this research was to examine the influence of specific portrayals in movie previews on viewers' perceptions. Namely, this research explored the effects of sexual and violent images in previews on viewers' perceptions--and anticipated enjoyment--of the film.

Explanations for the Role of Violent and Sexual Content in Anticipated Enjoyment

It would appear that industry conjecture concerning viewer enjoyment, as well as content analytic research, imply that sexuality and particularly violence may play important roles in viewers' selection and anticipated enjoyment of motion picture entertainment, though whether or not this conjecture is correct and the reasons for why it may be effective are unclear at this point. Perhaps the most straightforward explanation for the possible effectiveness of sex and violence in movie trailers is that such portrayals accurately depict what movie-goers will see and, more importantly, want to see in full-length feature films. The idea that at least some individuals find images of violence and sexuality inherently appealing or gratifying has received an abundance of research attention with a variety of explanations offered for the gratifications that viewers may obtain. Among these explanations are that sexual and violent portrayals offer viewers the opportunity for catharsis or sexual release (e.g., Feshback & Singer, 1971), that violent portrayals provide viewers with the opportunity to confront their own anxieties in safe environments (e.g., Goldstein, 1986), or that individuals have a natural (or sometimes morbid) curiosity about these types of media images (e.g., Aluja-Fabregat, 2000; Zuckerman & Litle, 1986).

Of course, the argument that violence and sexuality are effective selling tools in movie promotion because people simply enjoy these types of portrayals is far from a satisfying explanation. If sex and violence were the primary depictions of interest to audiences, then the movie landscape would presumably focus exclusively on these types of portrayals. However, it's clear that viewers are interested in a variety of portrayals and story lines (e.g., drama, comedy), and yet violence and, to a lesser extent, sexuality, are employed as marketing tools across a diversity of genres nevertheless. Consequently, alternative theoretical mechanisms are needed to help understand how (and if) violence and sex may effectively function as a means of attracting viewers to a diverse array of motion picture genres.

Research on disposition theory provides one useful framework for understanding how violence in particular may serve to boost audience gratification (e.g., Bryant & Miron, 2002; Raney, 2003; Raney & Bryant, 2002; Zillmann & Bryant, 1994; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977). In discussing media characteristics that make for "good drama," Zillmann, Bryant, and their colleagues are quick to point out that a crucial ingredient appears to be the depiction of conflict and its acceptable resolution (Bryant & Miron, 2002; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977). Although the notion of "conflict" may be conceptualized in a variety of ways, dramatic conflict is broadly defined as typically involving a clash between characters, which could occur in a variety of genres such as comedy, suspense, drama, etc. Across these types of entertainment fare, viewers are thought to experience the greatest level of gratification when protagonists experience positive outcomes and/or when disliked characters experience failure or defeat, whereas enjoyment is predicted to be hampered by the portrayal of protagonists who succumb to failure or antagonists who are depicted as "unjustly" rewarded. In short, disposition theory predicts that viewer enjoyment depends on the depiction of dramatic conflict, viewers' dispositions toward the parties involved in the conflict, and the ultimate outcomes that the parties experience. What this theory implies, therefore, is that the depiction of conflict is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for viewer enjoyment. As Zillmann (1996) noted:

The clash of two or more antagonistic forces is viewed as a basic, necessary condition for drama. Any and every dramatic situation is said to arise from such conflict, and it is explicated or implied that drama cannot exist without the display of conflicts and crises in one form or another (p. 201). Disposition theory has been applied to a variety of genres and media depictions, including crime dramas (Raney & Bryant, 2002), sports (Zillmann, Bryant, & Sapolsky, 1989), suspense (Oliver, 1993; Zillmann, 1980, 1996), humor (King, 2003; Zillmann, 2000), and news (Zillmann, Taylor, & Lewis, 1998), among others. In general, this line of research suggests that violence can play an important role in viewer enjoyment by enhancing the degree of perceived conflict or by depicting an outcome that is seen as appropriate or "just" (e.g., the violent punishment of a villainous character). For example, in the context of sports, Bryant (1989) argued that heightened perceived conflict is one explanation for viewers' enjoyment of violent or rough play: "The more violent the contest, the clearer the indication that the battle is being bitterly fought, and the greater the drama and the viewers' enjoyment" (p. 281). Likewise, in applying disposition theory to the context of humor, Zillmann and Bryant (1991) argued that aggression and hostility play a central role in many comedic offerings in which individuals are routinely "debased, demeaned, disparaged, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise subjected to undesirable experiences short of truly grievous harm" (p. 270).

It is interesting to note that research on disposition theory does not suggest that violence per se is necessarily enjoyed by viewers, but rather what violence may imply about dramatic conflict and its resolution. Consequently, this interpretation may help explain why portrayals of violence may not always enhance viewer enjoyment, and particularly if they are not perceived as contributing in a meaningful way to some narrative or story line or if other narrative elements are successful in creating the dramatic conflict intended (e.g., Berry, Gray, & Donnerstein, 1999; Hansen & Hansen, 1990; Sparks, Sherry, & Lubsen, 2005; Zillmann & Mundorf, 1987). What might this mean, then, for the role of violence in motion picture promotion? Given that movie trailers have only an abbreviated amount of time in which to overview the plot of a film and to pique viewers' interest, violent content may effectively function as a quick and unambiguous indicator that the film will contain dramatic conflict--be it conflict in the form of suspense, conflict in the form of romantic entanglements, or conflict in the form of humorous clashes. More protracted depictions of dramatic conflict such as arguments, chase scenes, or witty banter that may be actually featured in the film are not only arguably improbable to include in 2-minute trailers, but they may further not "translate" well to global movie-marketing contexts (Gerbner, 1999). One implication of this interpretation is that violence in previews may not necessarily increase anticipated enjoyment because viewers anticipate more violence, but rather because violence increases anticipation associated with the type of dramatic conflict expected (e.g., suspense, humor).

Although a...

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