TV Doesn't Have To Offend

The "decency debate" set off by this year's controversial Super Bowl broadcast may open a window of opportunity for advertising and programming.

During the Super Bowl, the ad world's greatest showcase, many spots featured sophomoric humor, such as horses with flatulence problems, crotch-biting dogs, and womanizing monkeys. However, they were overshadowed by a halftime show that culminated with a flash from Janet Jackson in front of nearly 90 million viewers.

The resulting scrutiny has sparked several responses. The Grammy Awards announced a five-second broadcast delay to censor any crass behavior by the presenters or award recipients. The Academy Awards followed suit and strictly enforced its commercial guidelines. And Clear Channel's radio stations suspended Howard Stern's morning show due to racial slurs and offensive sexual references. According to Clear Channel, its stations will not air Stern until Viacom provides assurance the show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.

Where this is heading is hard to say. The debate continues on government's role in policing indecency and obscenity. Advertisers are caught in the middle. Not only do commercials constitute some of the messaging in question, but they fuel the system. AOL, official sponsor of the Super Bowl halftime show, reminded CBS of that by asking for a refund.

Obviously, media buyers can avoid network programming in which they feel their clients/products won't be well-represented. However, the offensiveness of the programming is only one factor. Advertisers and their media agencies remain under scrutiny regarding the content of their commercials. And that raises the stakes. To the extent an ad offends, it may work against its goals. All too often, advertising errs on the side of being unremarkable—an increasing danger in the current environment.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Programming and advertising can be fresh, compelling, and creative, accomplishing business objectives without offending anyone. The best advertising and television programs can be stirring, moving, thought-provoking, and uplifting. That's why they are most effective together.

As the broader debate rages on, media buyers may be tempted to crawl into a shell. Rather, they should step out and insist on network guidelines and genuine creativity that connects appropriate emotions to their brand/ product in a relevant, compelling way.

Doing so, advertisers and agencies will further separate their work from the great body of advertising that is either unnoticeable or inane.

Bathroom humor is not only easy, it's common. True creativity is rare. If advertisers fail to meet this challenge, what's next? An FCC mandated five-second delay on commercials?