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Sex Sells: Sound Familiar?

September 19, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

As media sex and violence again command national headlines--something that happens with unerring consistency, it seems, every election year--a study addressing those concerns came and went with surprisingly little fanfare.

The survey in question reported that about a third of adult Americans say they have recently viewed TV content they considered "personally offensive or morally objectionable" in the form of language, sexuality or violence. Adults in households with children were more likely than adults without kids to be offended, but the difference between the two groups was relatively small.

The findings, in this case, were less notable than the source: an arm of the ad agency McCann-Erickson whose aim was to reinforce the goals of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a group of advertisers who have banded together to promote "family-friendly" programming, essentially creating safe havens for plugging the products they want to expose to the public and a development fund to help foster such series.

Without diminishing the findings of the study, having advertisers carry on about objectionable TV content is rather laughable, given that advertising has always played an influential role regarding content on broadcast television and that commercials are often as racy as anything else you're apt to see in prime time.

Just scanning the dial, one might see a young man who appears to be performing oral sex on a male friend (who was actually bitten in the thigh by a snake) when an attractive women jogs by; a man and woman disrobing as they drive down the highway in a sleek convertible, scattering clothes behind them; another woman sounding as if she's having an orgasm--screaming "Yes! Oh yes!"--as she rubs a hair product into her head; a man caroming a golf ball off a tree into his groin; and occasional talk about "erectile dysfunction." Be sure to keep a thesaurus handy in case the kids ask you to explain that one.

None of this happened within those awful sitcoms and dramas advertisers are lamenting. These episodes were part of commercials, including the first spot cited, which ran during "Survivor" at 8 p.m.--the so-called "family hour" the FFPF (an abbreviation that sounds risque by itself) is seeking to establish.

Nowhere does the study ask the question many viewers would no doubt like to weigh in on: When was the last time you saw an ad you deemed "personally offensive" or "morally objectionable"? After all, as anyone who watches much TV can tell you, the advertising is often more suggestive--and frequently more entertaining--than the adjacent programming.

This hypocrisy is nothing new, as author Louis Chunovic chronicles in his book "One Foot on the Floor: The Curious Evolution of Sex on Television From 'I Love Lucy' to 'South Park,' " which TV Books will publish next month.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Chunovic and I worked together in the mid-1980s, so I can vouch for his credentials on this particular topic. If memory serves, when we weren't talking about television, we almost invariably talked about sex.)

Chunovic makes several salient points in the book--which draws its title from a hoary rule that sought to prevent untoward sexuality on screen--among them that television has always provoked outrage from would-be censors, dating to the plunging necklines of Voluptua, an aptly nicknamed late-night host in the 1950s.

The observation that stuck out, however, was the manner in which advertising kept pace as barriers governing sexuality fell in prime time. Through the years, as producers broke ground in series and movies, advertisers did the same, including suggestive catch phrases such as "Does she or doesn't she?" in the '50s, "Take it off, take it all off" in the '60s and a teenage Brooke Shields teasingly saying that nothing comes between her and her Calvin Klein jeans in the '80s.

The truth is, sex and violence have never been bad business for advertisers, proven by the fact one of the world's biggest sponsors, Procter & Gamble, has for years produced daytime soaps--including CBS' "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns"--that contain as much sexuality ounce for ounce as any other programming on television.

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What advertisers fear, rather, are ideas and issues, especially those likely to stoke the fires of controversy. Bring up abortion--even without taking a position on the matter--and advertisers head for the hills. Religion, in any substantive way, can be equally dicey.

Until recently, homosexuality was in the same boat, and even now you don't see the gay and lesbian characters who have gradually found their way into prime time hopping into bed together, as their straight counterparts do.

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