Who is to blame for today’s media landscape?
The uncomfortable truth is that we all bear a portion of the blame. Parents, advertisers, and Hollywood — all share part of the responsibility for the prevalence of sex, violence and profanity on television; and to the extent that those influences shape the culture, we all also share some of the responsibility for the current state of our culture.
Although we have little opportunity to directly influence what Hollywood is doing, changing our own behavior can have an impact on advertiser behavior, and indirectly influence Hollywood’s behavior.
In our own homes, we can “vote with the remote;” that is, if we say we want more family-friendly programming, we need to show our support for family programming when it is offered and likewise turn away from the content we find objectionable.
We can influence advertiser behavior, too. The relationship between the viewer at home and the sponsor is the linchpin on which the entire television business model turns. Consumers can leverage their purchasing power to encourage the development of more programs that reflect their values. And consumers need to make their voices heard.
To that end, the Parents Television Council has just released its annual listing of the Best and Worst TV Advertisers. This list is intended as a guide for consumers who wish to vote with their wallets. That is, consumers who want to see more family-friendly programming can show their support by purchasing from companies that help to make such programming possible with their sponsorship dollars. Consumers can also avoid purchasing from companies whose ad dollars go to underwrite some of the worst content on television.
We may not be able to directly influence what the networks show — as long as the customer is happy, the viewers at home don’t really matter — but advertisers can. The networks can’t afford to lose ad revenue. They can’t afford to alienate their sponsors, so they will do whatever it takes to make those sponsors happy. If advertisers don’t want anything to do with explicit sexual content, graphic violence, or raw, obscene language, such content quickly goes away.
Advertisers are uniquely positioned to influence programming decisions. David Stanley, a former producer for Comedy Central’s The Man Show, once explained: “There was a time when the airwaves were a public trust, and the television code was enforcing it. People were worried about losing their licenses. Today, if there’s a real difference, the line is being drawn almost exclusively by the advertising industry. [If] advertisers are willing to buy time on shows with more risqué content, they will go ahead and [sell] it.”
Advertisers need to remove themselves from the equation and force the networks to start delivering the kind of content they would be proud to sponsor. And it’s in their own best interest to do so.
A meta-analysis of 53 studies comprising 8,489 participants conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and published this summer in Psychological Bulletin concluded that using sex and violence to sell products or services and even advertising in programs that contain sex and violence is a bad strategy for maximizing ad recall and creating positive brand associations. By contrast, research shows that sponsoring family-friendly programming will help build brand equity, improve the ROI of ad dollars, and even improve the chances that ads will be remembered.
If we want to effect a positive change in the entertainment industry, we need to make it uncomfortable for sponsors to buy time on shows with harmful content. And the best way to do that is to support companies whose values align with our own, and to avoid buying from sponsors who make the very worst TV content possible. But it all begins with us.
Melissa Henson is the director of grassroots education and advocacy for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.ParentsTV.org)