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Review: Troubling TV Ads

Silver, M. (1993, February 1). Troubling TV Ads:┬áParents Who Peek at Kids’ Shows May be Shocked by the Commercials. U.S. News and World Report, p. 65.


(Download Troubling TV Ads overview as a PDF)

Joey and Nancy are two of over six million kids who glue themselves to the “tube” for the weekly ABC puppet sitcom “Dinosaurs.” This is one time during the week where parents can relax as their kids enjoy this “safe haven in a TV landscape increasingly landmarked by sex and violence.”

But on January 8, seconds after the credits faded, the mood changed abruptly. “When she couldn’t be the perfect wife, her husband planned the perfect murder,” said the voice-over. A man loaded a gun. A woman bared a bruised shoulder and whimpered, “I’m afraid for the kids.” The man growled, “I wish my wife was dead,” and smashed a frame holding her photograph.

Promotions like this one, for an ABC-TV movie, “Death Before Dawn,” regularly interrupt the tranquil world of kid’s programming, to a degree that most parents are unaware. Other examples of the mixed marriage between family programming and adult, violent advertising include:

  • During a 4:00 p.m. showing of “Pinocchio’s Storybook Adventure,” the narrator reads a teaser saying, “A troubled girl gives birth to a dead baby,” and “having sex with a retarded person is sexual battery.”
  • During an afternoon rerun of the family sitcom, “Full House,” a promotion for “The Untouchables” shows one man getting shot in the shoulder and another landing on his face after a shot in the back.
  • An ad for the R-rated “Leprechaun” horror flick ran at the start of “The Simpsons.” In one scene, a hand reaches through the floor to grab a victim.

Parents relaxing in another part of the house or busy doing chores would likely do so in the comfort of the cuddly dinosaur entertaining their kids in the TV room, and they can even hear the occasional laughs when the “Full House” characters go through their charades. Without closer look, it might seem that all is well during “family” hours of television viewing. Meanwhile, images and ideas that shape the world for young people are sneaking through their senses like thieves in the night.

Some kids are shaken and show immediate signs of having watched these ads, like six-year-old Linda Taffel who viewed an ad for “Nightmare on Elm Street” during an afternoon rerun of “The Wonder Years.” That night, she told her unsuspecting and confused parents: “I want that scary guy out of my house.”

Other kids do not show immediate signs of the influence of these ads, but their behavior, attitudes, and even dreams are impacted by their exposure to these ads.

A study of 875 third graders that began in 1960 and has continued over the years has been conducted by psychologist Leonard Eron of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. It concludes that large doses of TV violence make children more likely to act aggressively and to think of the world as frightening. Obviously, this is a greater result than merely bad dreams.

Efforts in engaging TV executives in this debate result merely in politically correct answers. (Except for one spokesman from Washington’s WFTY, who defended the “Heat of the Night” ad as appropriate because “Pinocchio’s Storybook Adventure” was not a movie for kids under 12 anyway-“too much dialogue, if you will,” he said.)

Further, federal laws applying to family programming say only that the ad must not be “indecent,” meaning it cannot contain obscene language or “patently offensive” sexual or excretory content.

One-perhaps the only-remedy for families is sustained complaining to local stations regarding the content and placement of advertising. Herman Ramsey, general manager of Atlanta’s WGNX, said “When a parent complained about an ad for a book on serial killers during an episode of ‘Full House,’ I killed it.”

If a staffer stonewalls, parents can turn to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureau (845 Third Avenue, New York City, NY, 10022).

Otherwise, parents ought to tune into what kids watch, including the commercials, because, in the words of George Gerner, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, “Ads are bizarre and graphic so viewers will pay attention.”

Questions for Reflections and Discussion

  1. According to this article, who really controls attitudes kids form about the world in which they live?
  2. Specifically, what actions from kids can be anticipated as the result of the advertising to which they have been exposed?
  3. How can kids be given a “crash course in TV literacy” by parents, teachers, and youth workers to help them fend off the effects of disturbing ads?
  4. How can kids be “debriefed” and “debugged” of the effects these ads have already had on them?
  5. What action can be taken to protect the kids of the future from inappropriate advertising during family programming?


  • Kids are having not only their behavior, but their very attitudes about life shaped by adult messages and prime-time content during what used to be considered “safe” periods of television.
  • Even in the most horrific of TV movies that contain violence, some aspect of good triumphs in the end, and “bad guys” are brought to justice. However, in a promotional ad run on a kids show, viewers see violent actions, but no discussion of how the show ends. Also, the tone of the narrator, who means to involve interest in watching the show, can imply fulfillment about the violent act being portrayed.
  • Adult leaders who give good advice face conflicts from kids who are unaware of where their belief systems have come from. Youth workers fight an unseen enemy while kids think they are choosing to “run their own lives.” They are really making uneducated decisions amidst a feigned independence.
  • With the increasing number of media available to kids (home video, interactive TV, computer networks, etc.), the shaping of beliefs, values, and fears by advertising will likely increase rather than decrease.

Douglas Howe
© 2018 CYS

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