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Sin-Category TV Ads on Rise

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

While federal officials debate indecency issues related to programming, regulators and others find questionable another element of TV viewing: so-called “vice” advertising, one of the fastest-growing categories on television.
Vice advertising includes products such as liquor, beer, gambling, condoms, sex aids and erectile dysfunction remedies.
“If I’m watching a ballgame and a Viagra commercial is on and my 8-year-old son asks, `Daddy, what’s erectile dysfunction?’ is that appropriate?” said Bruce Lefkowitz, Fox Cable executive VP of advertising sales, entertainment. “No one has asked that question.”
Such considerations may soon be placed under the microscope by federal regulators as yet more fallout from Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl appearance.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has said the commission would be looking at the “entire” Super Bowl, not just the halftime show. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in remarks to the press during indecency hearings last week that children must be protected from “inappropriate content.”
“How do you warn against halftime shows or slimy ads or sensation-seeking previews of coming movie and television attractions?” Mr. Copps said in his remarks.
These warnings have network executives on alert. “There is a heightened sensitivity,” said Roland McFarland, VP of broadcasting standards and practices for Fox Television Network.
Vice advertising has already undergone heavy examination. In the early ’90s there was scrutiny of whether gambling and condom advertising were appropriate for broadcast television.
Last year liquor marketers stirred up controversy when they made a renewed push to get on network TV after being absent for years under an informal agreement. The liquor sellers argue that they should be allowed to advertise just as beer and wine have always been permitted to put out their messages.
NBC experimented last year by airing some liquor spots during late-night, including during “Saturday Night Live.” At the same time it ran spots encouraging people to drink responsibly. After outcries from public interest groups, NBC pulled its liquor advertising.
No matter. Liquor has been increasing its advertising activities on cable television and local TV stations. In 2003 liquor advertising rose fourfold to $55 million. Liquor marketers spent $1 million on local TV stations and $2 million on network television in 2003. Liquor advertising on television grew 265 percent for the first 11 months of 2003 versus the same period in 2002.
Sex and Drugs
Overall advertising dollars are up for most of these categories. For instance, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority witnessed a 100 percent jump in network TV advertising in 2003 over the previous year. Other gambling advertising is up as well, according to media executives, as more gaming places open up nationwide.
Erectile dysfunction advertising has also grown substantially over the past two years. Many executives wouldn’t consider this vice advertising but advertising for a medical condition. Still, more than one lawmaker complained about the content of these ads during the Super Bowl. One TV spot from Levitra used sexual symbolism, showing a middle-aged man in his backyard throwing a football through a tire hanging from a tree. Two other brands, Viagra and Cialis, also ran erectile dysfunction spots during the Super Bowl.
Through 11 months of 2003, Viagra and Levitra spent $118 million in overall advertising, with $87.5 million placed on television. This was up over the previous year, when Viagra was the only erectile dysfunction medicine buying TV advertising time. This year Cialis has joined the other two prescription drugs. Marketing executives estimate Cialis will spend $100 million in advertising in 2004.
While TV programmers get the full brunt of FCC scrutiny, advertising content is typically left to the standards and practices executives at the TV and cable networks. Media agency executives said network broadcast and standards executives have tougher standards for advertising content than network programmers have on programming.
“The broadcasting networks look at program content and advertising content completely differently,” said Steve Grubbs, CEO of PHD North America. “They are much harder on advertising than on program content. They will be the very first to admit they have double standards.”
“The networks adjudicate legality but not necessarily taste,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. “As long as the images aren’t overly violent nor sexual, they will generally leave it up to the client to create the message.”
Sex-related content is a staple on some prime-time and daytime programs. “I can’t believe some of the stuff they put on air,” said Mr. Grubbs. “How often do you hear [rough] language on programs? There is also always a lot of sexual innuendo.”
Condom advertising has been on network television for years, though overall marketing dollars are small. Carter-Wallace’s Trojan condoms took out a spot on the finale of Fox’s “My Big, Fat Obnoxious Fiance” in February. Like most other networks, Fox runs occasional condom ads, but only in late-night programming and when appropriate, a Fox spokeswoman said.
Trojan has perhaps the largest TV marketer budget in the category, spending $3.1 million last year-down by almost 70 percent from 2002, when it spent $10.2 million.
Overall, gambling has climbed, since many new Indian casinos have opened nationwide. “As gaming increases nationally, there will probably be more, not less, advertising to attract that audience,” said Campbell Mithun’s Mr. Rash.
Gambling is a touchy issue with the NFL. During the recent Super Bowl, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority bought time on five CBS stations for its “Only Vegas” campaign-in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Dallas.
The NFL said the spots were in violation of its agreement with Viacom’s CBS to air the game. The NFL doesn’t want to be associated with gambling, and believes any commercial touting Las Vegas does exactly that, according to a spokesman.
Many broadcast and cable networks have their own restrictions. Fox Sports won’t take gambling ads but will accept liquor advertising. ESPN won’t take either liquor or gambling advertising.
Pulled Ads
Other cable networks go much further. For instance, Scripps Networks’ cable channels, such as HGTV, Food Network and Fine Living, eschew not only liquor and gambling but also other, seemingly harmless spots, said Steve Gigliotti, executive VP of advertising sales and emerging networks for Scripps Networks.
“We are very sensitive to our audience,” he said.
While Mr. Gigliotti wouldn’t offer specifics, media buying executives said these spots include one from a coffeemaker advertiser with heavy sexual innuendo; a retailer whose spot included a realistic morgue scene; a undisclosed advertising campaign featuring Monica Lewinsky; and a suggestive spot touting bidets.
Some of these commercials made it to air but were pulled after receiving strong negative reaction from viewers. “We are not crazy prudes here,” Mr. Gigliotti said. “But we took the time to understand the nature of the audience. They look to us as a safe harbor.”