Commentary: What will grace our TV sets next?
By Jim Schuh
It’s tough to figure out what kinds of ads will grace our TV sets next. What used to be taboo is now commonplace. Who could have predicted a half-century ago that we’d ever be “treated” to ads for erectile dysfunction? Who would have thought that today, we’d be seeing spots with people sitting on a toilet? Good taste is a bygone memory.
Some may say the ads have given us better understanding of our bodies and its functions, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t mind not knowing some specifics.
For many years, radio and TV stations refrained from airing ads for hard liquor. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) established its Code of Good Practices in 1952, and most broadcasters followed its guidelines.
The code came into existence to thwart government regulations over what appeared on the air – it was a set of self-guiding standards. A major element was establishing the number of commercial minutes TV stations could broadcast per hour, but it also banned profanity, illicit sex, negative portrayal of law enforcement and irreverence for religion. The code banned portrayal of drunkenness and ads for hard liquor, too. Basically, the code set standards of decency. (It also specified that news presentations were to be fair and unbiased and that commentary was to be clearly labeled as such. The rules didn’t address how to handle lies from politicians.)
Then the courts ruled that parts of the NAB code violated the First Amendment, specifically the part that limited commercial minutes in children’s programming and in 1983, the NAB eliminated the code. While some viewed that as a victory for free speech, it also opened the door for broadcast of all sorts of heretofore banned material, including liquor ads. (Some people thought the government prohibited liquor ads, but that never was the case – it was up to individual stations to decide.)
Many TV stations continued policies of not accepting ads for liquor, fearing a backlash from liquor opponents. But in recent years, after cable TV channels began airing those advertisements, some TV stations followed suit. Now it’s commonplace to see them on TV.
When the NAB code ended, networks established standards and practices divisions, which set guidelines on what each network would air. Over the years, the boundaries have expanded to allow for broadcast of what once was banned.
While companies that manufacture personal products and medications may try to be tasteful in their presentations, the boundaries of what’s tasteful are widening. It’s no longer rare to see ads for sexual and intestinal problems – products that were once off-limits for TV ads. (While it’s probably not true, it seems that spots for drugs to harness diarrhea pop up at dinnertime.)
We’ve just concluded fall elections and leading up to November 6, we’ve had to endure distasteful and repetitive TV ads for and against candidates. It’s important to remember TV stations aren’t allowed to censor these ads that candidates buy. While all were annoying, the ads paid for by the candidates themselves may have been the least irritating. The worst were ads paid for by political action committees – special interest groups with plenty of money to flood the airwaves with half-truths that most of us should not have believed. Broadcasters could refuse those type of ads, but since the sponsors pay full price, unlike candidates who get special low rates, the broadcasters love PAC ads because they pad their bottom lines.
I haven’t mentioned gambling. Today, we see frequent spots on TV for state lotteries and Native American casinos. In the late 90s, the courts opened the doors for gambling ads, striking down a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation that banned lottery ads on the airwaves. Ultimately, the FCC adopted a rule under which it wouldn’t enforce the advertisement of commercial gambling in states where it was legal. That paved the way for Native American casinos to buy time on TV to promote their operations.
The question now is what’s the prognosis for other gambling ads on TV? After the U. S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that legalized sports gambling in five states, get set for more gambling ads coming into your home. Again, broadcasters may be drooling at the likelihood of a new and lucrative revenue stream. Forbes magazine has quoted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as saying ads for legalized sports gambling, including bets on basketball, football and baseball teams could be worth $400 billion per year.
In my more than half-century of journalism, I’ve always supported free speech. But I also like propriety, which the dictionary defines as “the state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.” The items I’ve discussed in this column might not match propriety, and it may be that we no longer have conventionally accepted behavior standards. So we’re left with the hope that advertising practitioners will rediscover good judgement and self-regulation as good things and adopt them.
I realize my comments may not sit well with my friends in broadcasting who will politely remind me of two things: that they follow what the industry does and can’t really change things by themselves, and that my TV set has a button to turn it off if I don’t like what I see.
I never did like that last argument and know that if they really tried, broadcasters could do better.