Free-market censorship

Culture | New advertising trend may lead to better, cleaner television programs

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

Critics are taking notice of a new trend in television advertising, which is evolving along with advancements in technology. The ease with which viewers can record television programs on VCRs, or, even more conveniently, hard-disk recorders (which allow live television to be paused, rewound, or fast-forwarded), means that more viewers/

consumers are tuning out traditional 30-second ads. In response, the industry is integrating advertising-once again-into the very fabric of television programming.

It doesn't take an analyst to notice this trend: Simply tune in to any of the recent spate of reality shows and see contestants rewarded with Doritos or Mountain Dew, driving Pontiac Aztecs or Jeep Cherokees. The practices of "product integration" and corporate sponsorship are quick to draw largely unflattering labels from the mainstream press, however. Reporters throw around dreaded words like "consumerism" and "corporate greed," and critics lament an expected loss of creative freedom.

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An "ad-industry critic" quoted in Time referenced the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, at least partially blamed on corporate sponsors who demanded high ratings at the expense of fair and honest game results. Is television really on the road to ruin?

Some would say that it took that fork in the road long ago. While some concern for the diminishing of artistic freedom is legitimate, who really thinks that broadcast television is now a hotbed of unbridled creativity? The regular crop of formulaic, crass, and typically short-lived sitcoms that debut at the start of each season is very few people's idea of high art.

On the other hand, corporate sponsorship of individual television programs could create a much more functional system of free-market censorship-a form of censorship that shouldn't carry the same stigma as its governmental counterpart. A company that sponsors a television program, lending its name to the title-as General Electric did for the old GE Theater-will necessarily care a great deal about the content of the program and how it reflects on the company's image.

There's nothing wrong with this. Any company, just as does any private individual, has the right not to endorse a product that it deems alien to the principles of its management or offensive to a large-or even small-percentage of its target market. This is a distinction that was often lost in the debate several years ago over a similar issue involving corporate control of artistic freedom: Wal-Mart's policy of selling sanitized (or "censored") versions of popular albums in its stores. A great hue and cry arose among free-speech advocates about the evils of corporate censorship and the limiting of choice (the new face of immorality in modern society).

A WiredNews online column at the time bemoaned, "Since we can't choose or even know about what we can't see, hear, or isn't even produced [for lack of sales outlets], we lose one of the most fundamental freedoms-to make our own individual and family choices about morality."

But are "individual and family choices" dependent on full access to every depraved, decadent, and immoral form of "speech" at the local Wal-Mart (or on TV)? Should Wal-Mart have to sell hardcore pornography and prints of sacrilegious paintings next to diapers and hand towels so as not to violate anyone's freedom of choice?

The answer is clearly no. Wal-Mart executives have every right to choose what they sell in their stores, whether they make those choices for financial gain or personal conviction, or some combination of the two. The same is true for a company like Ford, which is paying to have its name attached to an upcoming reality series. It is perfectly legitimate for Ford executives to be concerned about the show's content and its reflection on the company's most valuable commodity-its brand name. Corporations have a much closer tie to their "constituency" than television networks, and so the sponsorship system creates at least the potential for greater sensitivity to what potential consumers might consider offensive.

What about the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s, in which corporate sponsors apparently abused their power by mandating that networks rig game shows to achieve higher ratings? Television was a new medium then. Those scandals not only prodded Congress to pass laws that prohibit such blatant abuses but also opened America's eyes to the possibilities-and liabilities-of television. Today's audiences are much savvier and, one hopes, much more aware that what they see on TV is not an exact representation of reality. If a return to corporate sponsorship serves as a reminder of that fact, then that's all the better.


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