Appropriate for All Viewing Audiences? An Examination of Violent and Sexual Portrayals in Movie Previews Featured on Video Rentals
Student researchers

Sriram Kalyanaraman (PhD Student)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. Mary Beth Oliver

For a complete report of this research, see:

Oliver, M. B., & Kalyanaraman, S. (2001, November). Appropriate for all viewing audiences? An examination of violent and sexual portrayals in movie previews featured on video rentals. Paper presented to the Mass Communication Division at the 87th annual convention of the National Communication Association (NCA), Atlanta, GA.


The rapidly changing media landscape has contributed to the omnipresent nature of movies, with consumers now able to view motion pictures in a variety of venues. This diversity of entertainment choices is apparently recognized by the motion picture industry, with producers now embarking upon new and innovative means of marketing movies. Some recent findings suggest that not only is violent and sexual content a major marketing tool, but also that the movie industry systematically targets such content at a young audience. Given that viewers report that movie previews or trailers are one of the most important determinants of motion picture selection, the purpose of the present study was to examine the prevalence and nature of violent and sexual portrayals in motion picture promotional materials by content analyzing movie previews featured on video cassettes.

Research Questions:

Specifically, we asked the following research questions:

RQ1: What is the prevalence and rate of violent and sexual depictions contained in movie previews?

RQ2: Is the amount of violence and sexuality in movie previews significantly associated with alternate information concerning the prevalence of violence and sexuality in motion pictures?

RQ3: What is the prevalence of violence and sexuality in movie previews as a function of the MPAA rating of the previewed movie?

RQ4: What is the prevalence of violence and sexuality in movie previews as a function of the MPAA rating of the feature film that the preview precedes?

RQ5: What percentage of previews for R-rated movies appears on videos for feature films with MPAA ratings for younger audiences?

RQ6: What is the relationship between prevalence of sex and violence in movie previews and the amount of money spent on marketing and distribution of the movie?


The movie previews analyzed were those appearing on a randomly selected sample of videos for films released onto video or appearing on Billboard's top-20 rental charts during 1996. The year 1996 was chosen rather than more recent videos to allow for ample time for financial data of the previewed films featured on the videos to be collected and reported. From this list of 258 unique movie titles, 50 titles were randomly selected, with 47 titles located. Most of films in the sample were R-rated (N = 28), 9 films were rated PG-13, 8 were rated PG, and 2 were rated G. Although most films were associated with multiple genres, the most predominant genre in the sample was comedy (N = 21), followed by drama (N = 18), followed by action (N = 12). The adjusted U.S. gross box office revenues for these films ranged from $182,452 to $204,070,714. All movie previews appearing on the sample of 47 videos were content analyzed, though some types of promotional materials were excluded from the study. The resulting sample consisted of 107 movie previews for films with release dates spanning the years 1992 through 1997, with the majority of films (N = 97) released in 1995 or 1996.

The number of aggressive scenes, as well as the number of explosions and gun scenes were counted within each preview to code for violence. Sexual scenes were coded as either featuring only female characters (one or more female characters), featuring only males, or featuring males and females together. Additional information about each previewed film was collected to provide a general indication of the amount of money spent on marketing the films, and the negative costs (i.e., budgets) of the films.


RQ1: An examination of the average number of violent scenes per minute across all previews showed that aggression was most prevalent, followed by gun scenes, and by explosions. In terms of sexual scenes, the average number of scenes per minute was 1.51. This average was largely accounted for by scenes featuring both males and females, followed by scenes featuring females only, and scenes featuring males only.

RQ2: Ratings of sexuality were significantly positively correlated with the previewed rate of sexuality. Similarly, ratings of violence were significantly positively correlated with the previewed rates of the three violence indicators, and were particularly strong for the rates of aggression and gun scenes.

RQ3: Although the analyses of the presence of violence showed only slight differences between the three MPAA ratings, the analysis of the rate of violence did reveal significant differences on two of the three indicators. These differences occurred because G/PG-rated videos contained significantly lower rates per minute of aggression and guns scenes than did R-rated previews, with PG-13 previews falling in the middle. The results revealed that previews for G/PG-rated films were significantly less likely to contain sexual portrayals than were previews for PG-13 or R-rated films, which did not differ from one another.

RQ4: The presence of aggression was most common among previews appearing on videos for R-rated films, followed by G/PG-rated films, and PG-13 films, although these findings only approached statistical significance. Analyses also revealed that previews preceding G/PG-rated films were significantly less likely to contain sexual portrayals than were previews preceding PG-13 films or previews preceding R-rated films, which did not differ.

RQ5: While previews for films with ratings lower than R (G, PG, and PG-13) were approximately equally likely to appear on videos for films with R-ratings and films with ratings lower than R, previews for R-rated films were significantly more likely to appear on videos for films rated R than on videos for films rated lower than R.

RQ6: The results showed that marketing and distribution costs were positively associated with negative costs and negatively associated with MPAA ratings. This analysis also showed that the rate of aggression was positively associated with greater marketing and distribution costs, while the rate of sexuality was a nonsignificant predictor.


The results of this study confirm the idea that violence, and to a lesser extent, sexuality, are common portrayals in previews for motion pictures. This study strongly suggests that movie previews present viewers with a condensed story of violence that is likely unparalleled by almost any other type of media content commonly encountered. The effect that these portrayals have on younger and older viewers is an area of research that is ripe for exploration. At present, this research suggests that movie previews unambiguously imply that what is "coming to a theatre near you" is a film filled with images of violence and aggression.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. Mary Beth Oliver by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 863-5552

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University