Guest Commentary: Advertisers Caught Up in the Indecency Debate

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

This year’s controversial Super Bowl broadcast set off a chain of events in the advertising and programming worlds. During the past 60 days, the “decency debate” has been at the top of the news. This may open a window of opportunity for media companies.
In the Super Bowl, the ad world’s greatest showcase, many of this year’s spots featured sophomoric humor such as horses with flatulence problems, crotch-biting dogs and womanizing monkeys. But the commercials were overshadowed by a halftime show that culminated with a flash from Janet Jackson in front of nearly 90 million viewers.
Programming and commercials have come under scrutiny by industry pundits and the Federal Communications Commission, sparking a whole sequence of events. The Grammy Awards announced a five-second broadcast delay to censor any crass behavior by presenters or award recipients. The Academy Awards followed suit and strictly enforced its commercial guidelines. And Clear Channel’s radio stations suspended Howard Stern’s morning show due to racial slurs and offensive sexual references. According to Clear Channel, it will not air Howard Stern on its stations until Viacom provides assurance that the show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.
Where this is heading is hard to say. The debate continues about government’s role in policing indecency and obscenity. Like it or not, advertisers are caught in the middle. Not only do commercials constitute some of the messaging in question, they also fuel the system. AOL, official sponsor of the Super Bowl halftime show, reminded CBS of that by asking for a refund.
Obviously, media buyers can avoid network programming in which they feel their clients/products won’t be well-represented. However, the offensiveness of the programming is only one part of the equation. Advertisers and their media agencies remain under scrutiny regarding the content of their commercials. And that raises the stakes. After all, if an ad is well-placed and attention-getting, it’s doing its job by raising awareness for the brand or product. To the extent the ad offends, it may work against its goals. A delicate balance exists, which is why ads that spark debate are actually rare. All too often advertising errs on the side of being unremarkable-an increasing danger in the current environment.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Programming and advertising can be fresh, compelling and creative, accomplishing its business objectives without offending anyone. Media companies should set acceptable programming guidelines for their clients to ensure that great creative can shine in the appropriate environment. The best advertising and television programs can be stirring, moving, thought-provoking and uplifting. That’s why they are most effective together.
As the broader debate rages on, media buyers may be tempted to crawl into a shell. Rather, they should step out and insist on network guidelines and genuine creativity that connects appropriate emotions to their brand/product in a relevant, compelling way.
To this end, advertisers and agencies will further separate their work from the great body of advertising that is either unnoticeable or inane.
Bathroom humor is not only easy, it’s also common. True creativity is rare. If advertisers fail to meet this challenge, what’s next? An FCC-mandated five-second delay on commercials?
Karen McCallum is a media supervisor for McKee Wallwork Henderson Advertising, based in Albuquerque, N.M.