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Advertisers Don’t Follow “The Rule”

Several years ago, my young son and I hunkered down with a plate of microwaved cheese sticks and a couple of sodas to watch a big game. The first spot advertised a sitcom by showing a clip of a waitress—angry with a customer—twisting the lip of a water glass into her armpit. In the next promo, the animated baby from Family Guy discussed his poopy diaper in some detail. Over the next few hours, we probably saw those same two commercials 7 gazillion times. Glass to the armpit. Poopy diaper. Glass to the armpit. Poopy diaper.

Sounds like small potatoes, you may say. My children probably won’t need counseling because of these promos. But here’s the deal: They’re shows we never would’ve watched specifically because of content like this. Yet that very content found its way into our living room. We were vigilant, protective parents. And it wasn’t quite enough. Why? Because advertisers don’t follow The Rule.

You know The Rule. It’s the one that says, "If you don’t like something, don’t watch it." And for the most part The Rule works. Except for the coarsening effect it has on the culture as a whole, I don’t much care how many times characters cuss on HBO’s Deadwood. We won’t hear it. We don’t get HBO.

But advertisers find ways to circumvent that vigilance. And, as advertising gets more graphic, children are being exposed to ever-greater levels of sex and violence. Take Hardee’s commercial for its Patty Melt Thickburger. In the 30-second spot, a blond model writhes around in a white shirt and panties eating a hamburger while a seductive female voice whispers, "Run your fingers through my hair. Touch me." Will we be able to watch the Broncos without my kids getting blindsided by that one?

Then there’s the granddaddy of all sex-soaked football sponsors, GoDaddy. For the last three years, has trotted out sultry models to star in its erotic showcase during the Super Bowl. It’s as close to soft porn as network television can get without pixelization. The company’s founder, Bob Parsons, swears that the commercials and the controversy they’ve generated have been integral to GoDaddy’s success.

"I hear time and again that if we continue with our style of marketing, it will bring about our demise," Parsons said on his blog. "But the facts say something very different."

Even if we turn off the TV entirely, that only solves part of the problem. Consider the ad campaigns of two recent horror films in the "torture porn" genre, Captivity and Hostel: Part II.

The billboards for Captivity were so cold and graphic that they never got the OK from the Motion Picture Association of America. They never should’ve been seen. But they were—all over New York and Los Angeles—before public uproar forced their removal. The studio called it an honest mistake.

Even the makers of Hostel thought the Captivity ads went too far. Still, they rolled out their own explicit posters. One showed an apparently nude woman dangling upside down, the veins in her neck bulging, her mouth open in a scream. The French version pictured a naked woman from the neck down (full breast nudity), standing and holding a severed head by her waist. In some cases, these posters have been seen hanging alongside promotions for Shrek the Third and Surf’s Up, films targeting a family crowd.

"Advertising by definition is exploitation," the campaign’s creator, Tim Palen, told the Los Angeles Times. "It’s easy to shock people. But you have to know when you’re crossing the line." Guess what, Tim. You crossed it. And you’re not the only one. In fact, my experience would suggest that it’s getting crowded over there.

Published June 2007