Ever since Janet Jackson's infamous “wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, citizens and children’s advocacy organizations have called upon the FCC, broadcasters and even Congress to re-examine television content and the guidelines that rate it.
But one type of programming that is viewed by all audiences at all hours on every network has continued to escape regulation: commercials.
From Paris Hilton's spicy burger ad to the ever-proliferating erectile dysfunction commercials, many parents have not been happy with recent television ads. And now, domain registering Web site GoDaddy.com is fighting to reprise its controversial 2005 Super Bowl ad during this year's upcoming game.
"Perhaps parents ought to have special radar during the Super Bowl these days, given its fame for showcasing the most avant garde advertising techniques," Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation open forum on decency on Nov. 29. A full-scale hearing on the subject is scheduled for Jan. 19.
Pryor continued, “I have a 10-year-old and 11-year-old at home, and my wife and I are scared to death for them to turn on the television without us in the room.”
In last year's controversial GoDaddy ad (click here to see the commercial), a young woman appears before a faux government hearing on broadcast decency and asks permission for her commercial to air during the Super Bowl. She's clad in tight jeans with GoDaddy.com across her rear and an even smaller, tighter white tank-top with GoDaddy.com across her chest.
During the commercial — which was pulled after its first airing — she begins jumping around cheerleader-style, causing a Jackson-style "wardrobe malfunction" as a shirt strap slips off.
Jon Nesvig, FOX's president of advertising sales, explained the incident in a statement:
"When the GoDaddy.com spot aired in the first half, it became obvious to us that its content was very much out of step with the tenor set by the other ads and programming broadcast by FOX on Super Bowl Sunday, so FOX made the decision to drop its repeat airing."
According to GoDaddy.com President Bob Parsons' personal blog, the company has agreed to purchase a 30-second spot in this year's game on Feb. 5, but none of its submissions so far has passed ABC's Standards and Practices department.
But Parsons promises the finished product will be true to the company's style.
"It will be 'GoDaddy-esque.' In order to be 'GoDaddy-esque,' a commercial must be edgy, hot, slightly tasteless and just a touch inappropriate," he said on his Web site.
Also at the November decency forum, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., described himself in a statement as “a parent who has had to sit through uncomfortable Cialis commercials while watching television with my 7- and 4-year-old daughters.”
The ad Obama cited, for the erectile dysfunction medication Cialis, features snuggly moments between couples of all ages to the tune of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” And FDA regulations require medical ads to specify risks verbally, resulting in somewhat embarrassing dialogue.
"Cialis is only for men healthy enough for sexual activity ... erections lasting longer than four hours, though rare, require immediate medical help,” the ad warns.
Obama is not alone in his discomfort over commericals like these.
“There I was, watching football," wrote Tim Whyte, general manager of the Santa Clarita, Calif., newspaper The Signal, "and up pops a commercial for an erectile dysfunction drug. It’s not that the Levitra ad offended me. It didn’t. But cripes — sometimes my kid watches football with me.”
Whyte added, “Biggest problem was, just a few seconds into the commercial, she dropped the E-bomb: ‘Levitra,’ she said, ‘gives you that “strong, lasting erection” you’ve been looking for.’ OK parents, raise your hand if that line sends you into a panic.”
On Monday, the NFL announced that it would end its 3-year-old sponsorship deal with Levitra when it expires in March because "the ads shifted from men's health to a performance, lifestyle issue." NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy added the noticeable change made the organization uncomfortable.
Advertising guidelines adopted by the drug companies last year say ads should be targeted to avoid audiences for whom the message is inappropriate, a move seen as an effort to limit children's exposure to erectile dysfunction commercials.
According to the Parents Television Council, a group that aims to prevent children's exposure to gratuitous sex and violence on TV, a lot of parents have expressed concern about the various ads for ED drugs.
Too Hot for Kids?
The Council was also outraged in May when the now-infamous Carl's Jr./Hardee's ad — featuring Paris Hilton in a skimpy swimsuit and spike heels seductively washing a Bentley — aired during an 8 p.m. broadcast of "American Idol."
"At this crucial time when broadcasters are under increased scrutiny by millions of parents who are fed up with current television content, we would think that the awareness would extend to advertisers," the Council said in a statement.
"Instead, Carl's Jr./Hardee's have done the opposite and are forcing American families to digest their filth. This is the ultimate example of corporate irresponsibility."
Some Hardee’s franchises in the South refused to allow the ad to air in their markets after heavy campaigning from the PTC. But Hardee's and Carl's Jr.'s parent company CKE defended the commericial.
"It was designed to be a racy ad, but we don't consider it pornographic," said Brad Haley, a marketing vice president for the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's chains, adding the appeal of using Hilton was the very fact that she’d create a stir.
Some business writers also came out in support of CKE.
“Despite protests from parent watchdog groups, like The Parents Television Council, this is just plain smart marketing in today's world,” David Kiley wrote in a May column for Businessweek online titled “Carl’s Jr’s Paris Hilton Ad Spicy and Smart.”
He added, “Let's not be too serious about our hamburgers, shall we? (Though I do advocate keeping fast food ads off juvenile TV like Nickelodeon)."
Ads Hit 'Close to Home'
But product ads are not the only issue. Some parents also have a problem with commercials for adult-oriented TV shows.
“Networks may be putting the shows on later in the evening, but they are advertising those programs throughout the day," Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parents Television Council, told FOXNews.com.
“I’ve been watching CBS lately at home, and at 8 p.m. they were advertising "Close to Home," a recent episode about married women who were call girls. I mean, who cares if the show itself gets a TV-14 rating if you’re watching a show with your kids and the ad for it pops up?”
According to the FCC, "indecent" or "profane" programming is illegal to broadcast during certain times of day — between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. — where there is a reasonable chance children may see it.
Obama also addressed program ads at November's decency hearing:
“Deliver promos and advertising appropriate to the show they accompany. Broadcasters should ensure that promos for horror movies and for provocative shows such as 'Las Vegas' are not being shown in the middle of a cartoon or a family sitcom with a more restrictive rating.”
Concerned parents do have recourse, though. Just like the outrage over the GoDaddy and Hilton ads caused them to be scaled back, other ads have also been yanked.
“There was a JC Penney ad a couple of years ago, a back-to-school shopping ad with a teenage girl coming downstairs, and her mother says, ‘you’re not going out of the house looking like that.’ The girl pulls her pants down til they’re sitting even lower on her hips. A lot of people contacted JC Penney and they decided to pull that ad, so sometimes that works, sometimes they are responsive to consumers,” said PTC’s Caldwell.
But others say responsibility lies with the media.
Christy Glaubke, associate director of the Children and Media Program for Children Now, told FOX News, “It’s really about the broadcasters and the cable companies taking responsibility, and being considerate about what they’re broadcasting and when."