“Ring around the collar,” “Once you pop, you can’t stop,” “Just do it.” Television viewers today are bombarded with increasing commercial content. From the barrage of 15-second commercials every seven minutes, to product placement, to infomercials, when the viewer watches television, they are constantly exposed to some form of advertising. Beyond the minor annoyance, very few people think that much is wrong with advertisements. What viewers do not realize is how much advertising influences the content of television, often in a negative manner. In his article Conscientious Objections Neil Postman states “The anarchy in television news is a direct result of the commercial structure of broadcasting.” When the Government granted television stations the right to broadcast over American airwaves, there was an agreement that stations would serve the public interest. Slowly but surely, things have changed. Television no longer serves the public, what goes on the air is now determined largely by advertisers.
Many of the changes in television occurred because of the government deregulation of television in the 1980s, when the head of the Federal Communications Commission under Reagan rolled back the principle components of broadcast regulation. Two major components of the deregulation where the elimination of the “three-year rule,” which stated that broadcast entities could not be sold for three years after the date of purchase; as well as allowing more commercials in a broadcast hour. The deregulation changed the television industry forever.
The three-year rule had ensured that a station remained viable and intact. The deregulation changed the status of many television stations. In the article Consumer Culture and TV Programming, Robin Andersen writes:
“Before deregulation, corporate speculators did not purchase stations solely for the purpose of commodity trading. After deregulation, however, speculators who had no interest or experience in the media bought and sold stations simply to make a profit. Corporate investors would often cut corners to make a profit, this included cutting news departments, and giving in to many advertiser demands.” (Andersen, 19)
The other major step taken during the deregulation of the 1980s overwhelmed viewers with advertising, and diminished advertising s effectiveness. Before the deregulation, advertising had a firm grip on viewer attention. Viewers watched advertisements with vigor, and research revealed that they remembered a great deal of what they saw. Along with more commercials per hour, the standard 30-second commercial gave way to more short 10- and 15-second spots. After the deregulation the number of commercials on network TV in an average week tripled to more than 5,000. (Andersen, 20)
Just as viewers were being bombarded with commercials in the 1980s, remote-control technology showed viewers an escape route. With the help of the remote control, viewing habits changed. Audiences began to change the channel, mute, or fast-forward their recordings during television advertisements. Advertisements lost a great deal of the persuasive power when viewers began to disregard them. Since then, marketers have searched for ways to bring back advertising s persuasive power. One result of this search has been increased demands that programming content supports and reinforces advertising messages. Another consequence has been the advent of subtle advertisements that disguise their promotional character such that viewers will be more accepting of the persuasive messages. A good example of one such practice would be product placement, in which brand names are strategically placed into the television program.
As advertisers became more demanding of television support of advertising, television became dependent on advertisers financial support. Andersen states that in the 1980s, the costs of prime-time programming escalated, while revenues plateaued. This led to forcing all programs to become more cost efficient. At the same time, the advent of cable television in the 1980s gave advertisers more channels in which they could run their commercials. Therefore, networks had to lower their advertising costs to compete with the cable stations. With cheaper advertising, stations became increasingly dependent on ad revenues for their livelihood.
With stations more dependent on advertising dollars, and advertisers more desperate to reach viewers, big business advertisers gained more influence into the content of the media. Advertisers would refuse to advertise during shows that were not “receptive to advertising.” With slim budgets, stations could not afford to cross these advertisers. Therefore, any content to which certain advertisers might take offense with was often omitted from television programs.
News and public affairs directors are made aware that advertisers are monitoring their programming and that to contradict corporate sponsors or their advertising messages would have a negative financial impact on the station and their jobs. Because of this pressure the media must tiptoe around any issues advertisers may find offensive. In his article Censorious Advertising Milton Glaser exposes Chryslers advertising policy which requires that magazines submit articles in advance for screening by Chrysler to determine whether they contain any editorial content that may be construed as provocative or offensive.
Censorious policies such as Chryslers are not at all uncommon in the advertising business. In her article Sex, Lies, and Advertising, Gloria Steinem chronicles her experiences as head of Ms. magazine. In her article she gives examples of many companies with advertising policies similar to Chryslers. For example S.C. Johnson & Son orders that its ads “should not be opposite extremely controversial features or material antithetical to the nature/copy of the advertised product.” Procter & Gamble states that advertisements for its products were “not to be placed in any issue that included any material on gun control, abortion, the occult, cults, or the disparagement of religion. Caution was also demanded in any issue covering sex or drugs, even for educational purposes.” (Steinem, 226)
Advertisers have made the message clear that they want the media to be as non-controversial as possible, in order to maintain an optimal consumer environment. Although Steinem’s particular situation involves print media; there are many similarities between the two genres. In her aforementioned article, Andersen cites this example of advertiser influence:
When CNN s Capitol Gang was summoned to carry out a mock program in front of a group of advertisers, the producers and commentators were sent a clear message, namely, that the programs content will be monitored with great interest. Under these circumstances it is unlikely that information unacceptable to CNN advertisers will be included. (Andersen, 24)
With such a clear message sent to the cast of Capitol Gang, it is obvious that advertisers have a substantial influence on the programs content.
Advertising power can be especially damaging to news content. In 1994, ABC news reported on Philip Morris’ manipulation of tobacco levels, an issue that had been advanced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Although the information was true, Philip Morris brought a $10 billion libel suit against ABC. Philip Morris, through its Kraft Foods, is a major advertiser. Not wanting to lose precious ad revenues, ABC apologized on air for telling the truth. (Andersen, 27)
The threat of libel suits, and the withdrawing of advertisement is a powerful one that prevents many newscasts from airing controversial material involving large advertisers. As the late advertising executive Howard L. Gossage stated “[Advertiser] control is not by intent, but through the simple ability of advertising to bestow or withhold favors.” (Lowenstein and Merrill, 77)
It is painfully clear that advertising can have a negative influence on television content, but is there a solution? Gloria Steinems solution for Ms.’ problems was to become commercial-free. After having tried various methods of dealing with advertising, to no avail, Ms. magazine became a commercial free publication.
PBS also operates as a commercial free entity, being partially funded by the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government partially funds this form of Public Television. PBS represents an alternative in the television media system, and at a low cost for taxpayers.
The author of The Future of Public Television argues that the media must be democratized. He believes that Public Broadcasting is an important step in the democratization process. “In important respects, particularly its partial removal from market forces and the early articulation of its commitment to diversity, our current system of public television provides a concrete example of both the vast potential and the increasing necessity of a more democratic mass media.” (The Future of Public Television, 167)
Unfortunately, Steinem and PBS’ solutions are not viable for most forms of television media. In order to maintain television as a “free” service to the viewers, stations need advertiser support. It is unlikely that the government would be able to fund such a large number of stations.
Lowenstein and Merrill offer a different solution than Steinem and Miller, stating that advertisement has a right to broadcast its message. The authors state that the broadcaster has an “obligation to provide a program at the lowest possible cost to the consumer.” However, Lowenstein and Merrill state that Government agencies must regulate advertising s misleading and unfair policies. The authors believe that only through government intervention can the effects of advertising be controlled.
The current media system needs to be repaired. However, as the author states, changes in the media system “Certainly will not be completed overnight ” (The Future of Public Television, 167). Solutions such as Steinems and PBS’s are not feasible at this point. Commercial television is a multi-billion dollar business. Many jobs depend on this enormous industry, and to transform television to a commercial free format would cause economic problems. Renovating the media system is unfeasible because of its large size. The system is too complex to be drastically changed.
A small step must be taken first, I propose that a government agency should be created to oversee and regulate advertising. This agency would look into advertisers to make sure that program content was not subverted, that deceptive advertising did not happen, and that advertisers would not be allowed to preview programs before deciding whether or not to advertise.
These steps will diminish the influence which advertisers have on television broadcasters. In order to keep advertisers and broadcasters from breaking these rules, this agency would be given the power to fine any corporations and broadcasters that did not follow the rules.
This government agency would be the first step in freeing the media from advertiser influence. Although it may not cure television of all advertiser influence, it is the first step towards that goal.
“Advertising: Benefactor or Intruder?” Lowenstein and Merrill, From Macromedia, Longman 1990.
“The Future of Public Television,”
“Censorious Advertising,” Milton Glaser.
“Sex, Lies, and Advertising,” Gloria Steinem From Language Awareness, Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa & Virginia Clark (eds). New York: St Martins Press, 1994. Pages 217-229. Originally in Ms, July/August, 1990.
“Conscientious Objections,” Neil Postman, Alfred Knopf, 1988.