The commercials that run during televised sporting events used to be safe enough for an entire family to watch together.
Take, for example, the iconic Coca-Cola ad featuring pro football great "Mean" Joe Greene that first ran in 1979 during Super Bowl XIII. As a beaten-down Greene limps off the field toward the locker room, a young boy guilelessly offers his hero a Coke. Greene declines twice, but the boy insists. Mean Joe ultimately relents and swills back the soda. The spot ends as Greene thanks the kid by tossing him a white Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.
Nearly 33 years later, that advertisement is still scoring points for Coca-Cola.
But long gone are the days when the commercials running alongside sports programming can be counted on to be family-friendly. Today, a father watching football with his family must be ready to distract kids during commercial breaks or altogether skip ads via DVR. Because without a screening strategy in place, kids who watch sports on TV will be subjected — regardless of time of day — to unrated, hypersexual, male-oriented advertising promoting products like erectile dysfunction drugs, or implying that the use of Axe hair-care products can lead to spontaneous sexual encounters.
"Unfortunately, there's precious little a parent can do outside of take a child outside of a room or change the channel or something like that when these commercials come on," said Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council. "It's no longer just beer commercials and things that have traditionally been sexed up — it's been pretty prevalent and frankly it's really wider than that. … The sexual content appears to be more graphic and more effrontery."
Unlike television programming, commercials are not subjected to any kind of rating system and thus no form of standardized scrutiny. Professor Matthew Curtis of USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism says that ads today have to dial up the racy factor over the commercials of yesteryear.
"What has held true over many years is that standards, of sex and many things, change with time," Curtis said. "This is the case for sexual content in commercials. If you want to be considered a sexy commercial in 2011 you have to do things very differently from 1990, 2000 or even just a few years ago."
Tom Reichert, curator of the SexInAdvertising.com website and communications professor at the University of Georgia, attributes the rise of sex appeal in television commercials to the fragmentation of the television medium.
"It used to be you could only run (ads) on three networks," he said. "Now you can run them on male-oriented stations or female-oriented stations or what have you, so the risk of offending audiences has decreased. Plus, you have the Internet so you can use advertising to drive people to a website. That way the people that are most interested and least likely to object to your message are the ones who are going to see your communication."
Reichert's point explains why sexualized content consistently shows up in commercials that run with televised sporting events. The adult males with disposable income who typically watch sports represent a highly desirable viewing audience. And as advertisers have adapted to increasingly target this demographic, they are doing so through escalating levels of sexual content.
The Parents Television Council aims to establish a ratings system for television advertising much like the existing ratings framework for shows. But until then, the group is winning modest battles along the way.
For example, pharmaceutical companies that produce drugs for erectile dysfunction like Cialis and Viagra provide a list to PTC every week of all the shows during which erectile-dysfunction advertisements will air (these schedules can be accessed at www.parentstv.org/ed). Protests from PTC and other advocacy groups recently succeeded in shelving a JC Penney advertisement that marketed men's clothing by showing an attractive 17-year-old girl in a tiny red bikini getting out of a swimming pool, with a narration in the background from ESPN personality Kenny Mayne that said, "If you look at these smart fashion choices from Van Heusen, we're going to show you this (woman). That way everybody wins."
"There are some reasonable expectations that parents and families have," Parents Television Council's Isett said. "If you're going to watch a family show, you shouldn't be blindsided by a sexually explicit ad of some sort.
"There's room for everybody to improve here, but what we've tried to focus on is having some sense of responsibility from advertisers and the broadcasters that placed these ads, in terms of the time, place and manner where they're distributed."
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