Jewish World Review August 10, 2001 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5761

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

Selling vulgarity -- THE PARENTS TELEVISION COUNCIL has released a study concluding that broadcast television has become raunchier during the so-called "family hour" than ever before. Even though sexual content has decreased somewhat since the PTC's last family-hour study in 1999, children are being exposed to higher levels of lewd humor and coarse language overall.

The study also shows that topics which were rarely touched on a decade or so ago, such as oral sex, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography and "kinky practices," make up much of today's family-hour sexual content.

That television programs are filled with disgusting images, dirty words, and vulgar ideas is depressingly obvious to anyone who even casually turns on a TV set these days. Broadcast "entertainment" has been heading down that repulsive road for quite awhile now, although the repugnance level has certainly accelerated in recent years.

What I find particularly interesting, however, is not so much what the PTC study tells us, but what it does NOT touch on -- namely the vulgarity used in commercial advertising on television. Just how far advertisers will go and how they present their products to the American public speaks volumes on where we are, as a society, at any given time -- or at least, where the sponsors THINK we are. Judging from some of the commercials running today, sponsors must think we've sunk pretty low. In an attempt to keep pace with the shows they are sponsoring, advertisers are producing commercials just as vulgar as the programs.

In recent years, hemorrhoid medications, incontinent pads, feminine hygiene products, and just about anything else which used to be considered "private" have been presented in vividly descriptive terms. The subtlety and nuance of decades past have long been discarded. It's all right there in your face and in your children's faces. But lately, it seems advertisers have taken one step beyond indelicacy -- pushing the envelope into the furthest reaches of downright ugly.

And this week's winner for the most irresponsibly vulgar double-entendre in a television commercial goes to the Pilot Pen Company for their tasteless "Strangers On a Train" spot. The commercial opens up on two thirty-something attractive men sitting next to each other on a commuter train. They appear to be businessmen -- both are dressed in suits and ties. The camera shot is a straight-on two-shot of the men from the chest up. We cannot see their hands or laps.

One man is looking down intensely at his lap -- he is doing something, but we (the audience) cannot see what it is. The other man, curiously, glances down at the first guy's lap and, with his eyes widening says, "Wow! That is SOME instrument your holding!" The first guy smugly looks over at the second man and with a sly look he says, "Yeah ... do ya wanna hold it?" The second man excitedly responds, "Oh, yes ... yes, I do!"

At this point, we still don't know what is being referred to, but the innuendo is crystal clear. Then the first man hands the second man a pilot pen. There is a line or two about just how wonderful the pen is, and we end with a quick cut to an outside shot of the train barreling into a tunnel at full speed. Nice, huh? Welcome to television advertising in the 21st Century.

The old Virginia Slims cigarette tag-line, "You've come a long way, baby" could certainly apply to Madison Avenue ad agencies and their corporate clients. In a relatively short period of time, TV advertising has gone from two housewives discussing "ring around the collar" across a backyard fence, to the inference of two homosexuals getting sexually aroused and coming on to each other on a commuter train as one apparently plays with himself while the other watches. But commercials aren't only vulgar in sexually explicit ways -- sometimes they are vulgar in purely repulsive, disgusting ways.

Another recent ad, this one for Butler GUM toothbrushes, starts with the premise that the bathroom is a breeding ground for a multitude of germs. The camera pans around the bathroom from the sink to the tub -- at last focusing on the toilet as the voice-over describes how germs travel through the air. Then a middle-aged man enters the bathroom dressed in T-shirt and bathrobe and looking like he just woke up. He sneezes, wipes his nose with his hand and wipes his hand on the front of his shirt, charmingly illustrating for us the spread of air-borne germs. Nice finishing touch for the spot, don't you think?

However, considering the possibilities of what the guy could have done in the bathroom coupled with the lack of class emanating out of today's ad agency boardrooms, I suppose we should we thankful he only sneezed into his hand and wiped it on his shirt.

JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby