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And now, a word from our sponsor: 'Gasp!'

By Harry Bruinius Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2001



NEW YORK

Gorgeous scenery! Girls in bikinis! Just add a Ferrari and some talking frogs, and "Temptation Island" would look like an hour-long advertiser's dream.

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But despite high ratings and the kind of youthful audience companies crave, the Fox network is having trouble attracting big-name advertisers.

The reason might surprise viewers accustomed to thinking of advertising and ethics as mutually exclusive concepts: too much sex. The racy content in the current wave of reality TV is making some advertisers question the line between good marketing and good taste.

As a result, many big-name companies have chosen to vote themselves off shows displaying questionable content. For example, companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's held off placing ads on last weekend's debut of NBC's XFL, a smash-mouth football league co-produced by the World Wrestling Federation.

Grappling with such decisions is nothing new for advertisers, but many are starting to find it more difficult to

reach their target audience efficiently and remain true to their corporate scruples.

"Even as our society has become more permissive, in some cases it's making advertisers more conscious about who they are," says Brian Goodall, president of Hampel/Stefanides, a New York-based advertising agency.

"And as network television raises the bar for sex and violence, middle-America companies will be more vigilant on what they choose to sponsor."

After "Temptation Island" first aired, Sears, Quaker Oats, and Best Buy refused to have their ads run on the program, in which four unwed but committed couples test their devotion to one another other by frolicking with scantily clad singles. (In an ironic example of turnabout, Fox reportedly turned down a contraceptive commercial that its makers wanted to air during "Temptation Island.")

From 'Maude' to 'Murphy'

Advertisers fleeing controversy is nothing new. But in the past, companies tended to balk at sponsoring shows with divisive political and social content, rather than purely risque material.

In the 1970s, some sponsors pulled ads when a character on "Maude" chose to have an abortion. More recently, certain advertisers chose to avoid "Murphy Brown" and "Ellen" because of the controversial social issues they portrayed.

While skittish sponsors often avoid politically difficult programs, those decisions are generally easy to make, since those kinds of shows have clearly delineated demographics.

With sex and violence, these decisions are much more difficult. The most coveted demographics are teens and young adults, so, often, an advertiser's primary target audience will be watching a show with questionable content.

"We have a phrase: 'We like to fish where the fish are,' " says Sean Foster, vice president of marketing for National Discount Brokers (NDB), a New Jersey-based financial services firm.

But as it turned out, one of the best audiences for NDB was for "The Howard Stern Show," a program notorious for its lewd, sexual content. "If you look at the ratings on the [show] … everything plays right into our target," Mr. Foster says. "But for some very personal reasons, our senior management doesn't think that's a place we should be."

For many advertisers, this conflict is becoming more common. One reason is that network TV, still the haven for the kind of family-oriented programming in which many blue-chip sponsors feel comfortable, is struggling to retain viewers tuning in to rough-and-ready cable shows like HBO's "Oz" and "Sex and the City."

Racy TV often draws the viewers important to advertisers, but at the same time, the sponsors associated with these shows risk seeing their brands tarnished.

"It really comes down to dollars and cents," says Jeffrey Bryden, the executive-in-residence at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "While many corporations do have strong ethics, because they are public corporations they owe allegiance not only to their own sense of good taste, but to what's good business."

Protecting the brand name

In this sense, when making a decision to sponsor a particular show, companies rely as much on the image they wish to portray for their brands as they do for the audience they hope to reach.

"Brands are very fragile things," says Mr. Goodall, and they need to be treated respectfully, in terms of being respectful to the people who are loyal to them.

So far, the concern for brand image is keeping the prices for these time slots down. Despite its high ratings, "Temptation Island" has had to fill some of its ad time with bargain-hunters as the bigger-name sponsors stay away.

"Because of the controversial nature of the programming, they can't ask as much for the ads," says Mr. Bryden.

"I think good taste is good business." But Bryden cautions, "Taste, like everything else, is in the eye of the beholder, and smart businesses today appreciate that…. If they want their brand to be within a person's frame of reference, they have to match that brand image to that person's image of right and wrong."

Sponsor-shy shows

The 12 TV shows of the 2000-2001 season most often avoided by advertisers.

1. "WWF Smackdown" UPN

2. "Temptation Island" Fox

3. "South Park" Comedy Central

4. "Jerry Springer" Syndication 5. "Howard Stern" E! and CBS

6. "Jackass" MTV

7. "Politically Incorrect" ABC

8. "America's Most Wanted" Fox

9. "Cops" Fox

10. "Dr. Laura" Syndication

11. "The Man Show" Comedy Central

12. "Ally McBeal" Fox

Source: Media Life Magazine

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society