WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

Creative commercials can stand out if they appear during conventional TV programming, the Madison Avenue theory goes. But new research suggests that may be as wrong-headed an approach as advising Sir Martin Sorrell to take showers instead of making all those trips to the bathtub.

The study, from the Comedy Central cable network, offers a surprising vote of confidence for the concept of buying time during series with provocative, risque or controversial content.

That risque business can be lucrative business is counterintuitive to US media buyers because of the long history of mass marketers avoiding shows with contentious aspects. Fear of letters from angry customers, or even worse, boycotts, have traditionally kept US advertisers supporting only the most bland, risk-averse series.

But competition from pay-cable with its less restrictive standards and the desire to curry favour with younger, more sophisticated consumers, has led clients at least to consider sponsoring so-called "edgy" programming (shorthand for cutting-edge or perhaps sending the censoriously holier-than-thou over the edge).

Encouraged by the more liberal attitudes among advertisers, broadcast and cable networks are rushing out a rash of edgy offerings. Among them: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the boys-meet-boy makeover show; It's All Relative, a Romeo-and-Juliet sitcom in which Juliet has two dads; and Nip/Tuck, an adult drama about plastic surgeons, with realistically recreated operations interspersed with teenage three-ways and swingers' parties.

According to the study, conducted by a respected independent TV research company, Frank N Magid Associates, the content of such shows doesn't affect their advertisers in a negative way. Indeed, Adweek reported, on attributes such as good value for money, market leadership, caring about customers and high quality, average scores for brands included on tapes of edgy programming that were watched by survey participants were virtually identical to those for brands on tapes of mainstream programming watched by other participants.

Better yet, the survey shows, the ads during controversial shows were more effective in terms of brand recall, both aided and unaided; in the aided-recall portion of the study, viewers of the edgy programmes remembered ten of the 16 brands advertised better than the viewers of the milder programmes.

Certainly, Comedy Central has a vested interest in the survey turning out the way it did, so if the results showed advertisers of edgy shows risked stigmatising themselves, it would be deader than last season's shoe styles on an episode of Sex and the City. Comedy Central's fare includes South Park and The Man Show, raising eyebrows with frank language and imagery, along with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, an edgy spoof of news and newscasts with a decidedly anti-establishment bent. In fact, South Park is going into syndication in autumn 2004.

Even so, the results are worth pondering. As provocative shows proliferate, many are garnering high ratings, critical praise and that elusive talk value dubbed "buzz". Yet they lack advertiser support. Nip/Tuck, ending its first season as the most-watched new series on cable, has been only 75 to 90 per cent sold out. In other words, it may be time for marketers to put their money where their customers' foul mouths are.