The World: Watchdog gets ready to clean up US advertising

The Parents Television Council is stepping up its campaign to rid the airwaves of sex, violence and profanity.

US advertising looks likely to be the next target of the powerful advocacy group the Parents Television Council, following its recent flurry of complaints over some network programmes. The PTC plans to start monitoring ad content in much the same way it currently monitors programme content. "We are hoping to do an analysis of ad content later this year, but, right now, all we have is anecdotal data," Melissa Henson, the senior director of programmes for the PTC, says.

According to Henson, ad content is a major concern for PTC members. "It's probably the biggest growing area of concern," she says. "Even if you can find an hour or two of programming that you feel comfortable letting your children watch, there's a good chance you'll be caught off-guard by some inappropriate ad for an R-rated movie, violent video game or the networks promoting their own 10 o'clock shows on the 8pm hour."

The PTC recently asked advertisers to boycott CBS's Dexter, which has a serial killer as its hero. The problem with Dexter, Henson says, was the degree of violence in a programme shown at 9pm in certain time zones: "The Federal Communications Commission's authority does not extend to violence - just programming containing sexual or excretory content. But if the FCC can't do anything, we can."

The PTC contacted companies before the show aired, warning them about the content. "We heard from several that the programming was not consistent with their corporate image and that they would not be sponsoring it," Henson says. The PTC also filed an indecency complaint over NBC's broadcast of a graphic nude scene during Las Vegas that ran in February.

The PTC's actions follow the FCC's fining of 13 Fox TV stations for airing an episode of Married in America back in 2003, in which couples were entertained by male and female strippers. The FCC also recently fined ABC stations for a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue that featured scenes of a woman's buttocks. Both were fined because they violated the "Safe Harbour" watershed time of 10pm, before which children might be watching.

Henson says there's a lack of awareness about the fact that the FCC relies on complaints before they take any action. "People assume there's somebody out there policing the airwaves, and that if the stuff is airing on TV, it must have been approved by someone along the line," she says.

Over the years, the PTC has launched several campaigns in response to perceived "indecency" in TV programmes. "All the broadcast networks still have, from the earliest days of broadcast TV, standards and practices departments responsible for some level of appropriateness and decency," Henson says. "If there's a line being drawn in the sand, it's being drawn by advertisers, rather than the networks or the FCC. As long as ad companies are comfortable with the content and willing to pay for it, then it will air. We at the PTC can complain about Dexter, but it's not going to impact on CBS unless they see their bottom line threatened."

As well as the state and federal laws that advertisers must comply with, they must also adhere to network TV advertising guidelines, including requirements relating to taste. But controlling advertising is complicated because of the vagueness of the regulations governing taste and decency issues in the US. According to Wally Snyder, the president and chief executive of the American Advertising Federation: "Advertising and content are two different things. The broadcast networks are held to very high standards, the theory being children have access to those channels. But advertising is a business. It's up to advertisers to be careful that the ad does not offend its audience."

Concern over ethics is escalating in the US largely because of the acceptance of advertising for products including alcohol and prescription drugs such as Viagra. Snyder thinks marketers don't pay enough attention to questions of taste and decency. "In the US, the government has no mandate to regulate ethics, and is limited to questions of truth and falsity," he says. "There are no rules on taste and decency."

In his blog about advertising ethics for the AAF, Snyder cites campaigns from Dolce & Gabbana and Belvedere Vodka that depict women in sexually provocative poses. The National Organization for Women described the fashion label's print campaign as "stylised gang rape", while several cable stations refused to run TV ads for the alcohol brand. "Belvedere was trying to reach upscale vodka drinkers, but 49 per cent of that upscale audience are women," Snyder says. "So weren't they concerned they might offend that segment?"

And when consumers do complain, it's usually to the company, or online. "It might end up on YouTube," Snyder says. "There's so many more places now where people can talk about ads that offend them. At some point, there has to be a discussion with the agency and client about whether they're going to offend a group they don't want to."

Henson points out: "According to public opinion polls, 80 to 90 per cent of parents are fed up with the amount of inappropriate content on TV. Many favour additional government restrictions. It's the same in the ad industry. Advertisers have to be sensitive to the concerns of the consumer. Eventually, your resistance gets worn down. At some point, people just throw their hands up and say: 'I give up.'"