The Sleaze Subsidizers

You would think every major corporation likes to nurture its image as not only the maker or provider of a great product or service but also as a good corporate citizen. But when it comes to buying advertising time on television, the notion of corporate responsibility flies out the window. In the era of 100-plus channel programming, it’s no longer important to satisfy broad public opinion. If the Widget Corporation can reach two to three percent of the public with its ad, Widget is satisfied. And if that fraction of people enjoyed watching lions eat Christians, that would be fine, too.

Even though blame for increasingly offensive TV programming is properly assigned to producers, writers, networks, and even viewers, sponsors bankroll shows with graphic sexual content, foul language and violence, and therefore also share responsibility. Without the advertising dollars, the raunch would never air.

Fortunately, we still have good corporate citizens out there, and they prove it daily with their advertising dollars. Unfortunately, we also have some companies that could care less how many millions of young minds they help poison.

The Parents Television Council recently announced a list of the top 10 best and worst advertisers based on the products advertised on all of primetime broadcast television and select original cable programs between January 2004 and January 2005. Companies were ranked on the best or worst list based on how frequently their ads appeared on family-friendly programs versus programs containing high levels of sex, foul language and violence.

Let’s start with the ugliest. At the top of the worst-sponsors list was Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, the fast-food kings that oversee the Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s and A&W restaurant chains. There’s something quite hypocritical in their image branding efforts. As part of their social-responsibility effort, KFC has a "Colonel’s Kids" program to fund day care programs. Pizza Hut has a "Book It!" campaign to encourage reading among children. Taco Bell supports a teen program through the Boys and Girls Clubs. But when they advertise, they’re putting their dollars in the hands of the "MTV Spring Break" sleaze promoters, Fox’s alcoholic-orgy scenes on "The O.C." and the perverse plots on FX’s wretched corrupt-cop show "The Shield." Whatever good will the company earns with its charity efforts for children, it ruins with its advertising purchases.

There’s more hypocrisy, too. Corporations have an obligation to enforce strict sexual harassment policies, providing employees with a working environment that is not hostile or sexually aggressive. And yet, these same corporations underwrite broadcast material that could violate those same harassment policies if the material were communicated by one employee to another.

The top 10 worst advertisers list is dominated by car companies: Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford, Daimler Chrysler and Nissan should all be ashamed. (Also in this bottom-feeder list is Sprint, Pepsi, Citigroup, and Procter & Gamble.) Are the car companies so devoted to catching the attention of horsepower-obsessed young males that they’re willing to soil their image with the trash they’re subsidizing on the tube? Can’t they order a recall of defective entertainment? Toyota and their ad agency, Oasis Advertising, tout how they have a program to clean up national parks on National Public Lands Day. But that’s just a throwaway press release when they are spreading cultural pollution across the TV screen.

By contrast, the top 10 best advertisers have shown a genuine — and most deliberate — effort to support wholesome television shows, and they should be commended for their good citizenship. On that honor roll is Campbell’s Soup, Smucker’s, Merck pharmaceuticals, Clorox, Colgate Palmolive, Sears, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Mars and Wal-Mart. That’s not to say each company here never advertises on an envelope-pushing show, but their overall record suggests such an ad would be a rare exception to the rule.

For three decades, Campbell’s has been helping schools stretch their budgets with the Labels for Education program, where students bring in soup-can labels to help schools purchase additional merchandise, like physical-education equipment. But they can also add their family-friendly advertising to their record of community service and corporate philanthropy. Sears has figured out how to build a positive image by being a major sponsor on ABC’s inspirational good-guy show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." This week, Sears aired a series of ads with the show’s host, Ty Pennington, pitching nothing but a phone number for the Red Cross to help with hurricane victims. That’s class.

No one can doubt the extraordinary influence television has. Dramatic pictures of a hurricane spur billions in donations from across the land. Children watch television, and may choose to be a detective or a doctor or a coach by watching fictional characters on the tube. Why can’t TV’s corporate subsidizers offer some positive philanthropy by insisting the networks drain some of the sleaze, violence and gutter talk out of their nightly broadcasts?