Indecent Exposure

Advertisers are in an ornery mood. Rising prices, declining audiences, concerns about the veracity of audience research and the impending threat of DVRs have conspired to make clients and agencies alike question the value and effectiveness of TV advertising.

Amid this angst came the Super Bowl incident and the indecency debate. The issue here is not that advertisers are prudes. Rather, it’s about predictability. Advertisers don’t mind controversy, as long as they can anticipate it and make a conscious decision about including themselves in its midst. (Sports, after all, has for decades been among the most comfortable of all advertising opportunities. Sports figures may get into trouble, but sporting events themselves have been safe havens and predictable environments.)

Advertisers and their media services are always looking for new ways to attract attention for their clients, and controversy can be a part of that. Companies like Carat are not meek, but they want to know going in what their clients are in for. Clients simply want to be aware of the risks and make a decision about the environment in which their messages appear.

The issue at the Super Bowl was not nudity on television but surprising nudity at a peculiar time—during a period of family television on free TV. It came as a surprise and a shock.

On pay-per-view, lewd programming is available throughout the day, and few people complain. Cable shows like HBO’s Sex and the City include explicit sex scenes and are both critically and publicly acclaimed. There’s even been more nudity on advertising-supported broadcast television—on programs like NYPD Blue—than Janet Jackson displayed at the Super Bowl.

On those shows, however, both the advertisers and the public know what they are getting into.

What happened on the Super Bowl was an invasion of privacy for many families. Carat clients who chose not to advertise on this year’s game are invariably now happy about that decision for the wrong reasons. This is the real tragedy of this year’s halftime show.

To prevent such surprises, we at Carat are increasingly being asked by clients to screen each episode of those TV series that our clients are sponsoring. Opt-out clauses in advertisers’ contracts, which enable them to remove themselves from offensive episodes and content, are increasingly commonplace.

The Super Bowl remains the greatest single sports event in the nation. The NFL, the broadcasting network and the advertisers will ensure that nothing like that incident happens again. As one person I know recently remarked, Janet Jackson will have sparked the greatest revival of John Philip Sousa music in halftime shows in decades.

The incident will, in all likelihood, also prompt an even greater stratification of content on television. We’ll soon see content being judged on a continuum, from kid-friendly all the way to adults-only. That’s not to say advertisers will shy away from controversy or adults-only in the future. Quite the contrary. In an era of DVRs and pay-per-view, we will see advertising on pay-per-view programming. In random research, we recently asked: If you had a choice between a pay-per-view movie at the current price or the same movie with a few commercial inserts at half that price, which would you choose? Most people picked the cheaper alternative by a wide margin.

For advertisers, the challenge will increasingly be to control and be aware of the environment in which they are advertising. Avoiding surprises will be critical. Media-services agencies will be responsible for ensuring that the programming is appropriate for time, price and message. But within that context, I expect advertisers to be more demanding—more aggressive and creative than ever.

The competition for public attention is always fierce, and safety has never actually been the goal in advertising. It won’t become the goal in the future, despite the boob that changed television.