Stephen Dubner Notes the Power of Disgusting Advertising

Posted on September 10, 2007 by


Classes start this week at Cal-State Bakersfield.  So I should have spent my day working on preparing either The Economics of Religion or Intermediate Macroeconomics (the two courses I teach this quarter).  But I would rather comment on three items I saw on three of my favorite blogs.

These comments will be presented in three separate entries, with this entry focusing on a post by Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics.

Dubner noted the following about advertising last Friday:

My kids were recently watching a Yankees-Red Sox day game on TV, broadcast on the YES network. One of the commercials was an anti-smoking ad – placed, I believe, by the City of New York. It was a gritty, documentary-style spot, featuring a surgeon talking to the camera, then showing the patient he was about to operate on. The patient was a man whose toes were blackened and rotting away. The image of the foot was extremely disgusting. “It’s gangrene,” the surgeon said, and then he drew on the man’s leg with a marker to show where he was about to take his hacksaw and cut off the leg.

The ad made a huge impression on my five-year-old daughter. Hours later, she asked out of the blue, “Are you still thinking about that boy’s foot?” She couldn’t eat dinner that night since she was still thinking about the disgusting image. She is definitely more scared of seeing that foot again than she is of seeing the Wicked Witch of the West again.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to comment on this issue in The Wages of Wins Journal. The focus of the WoW Journal is sports, and Dubner’s observation is not really about sports.  But like Dubner, I am often watching sporting events while my children (I have two daughters, a seven-year old and a ten-year old) are in the room.

As an academic I am very sensitive to the issue of free speech. Like many academics, if you tell me I can’t say something, I am that much more inclined to say it.  Censorship is just a big no-no in academia.

But advertising, for me, is the exception.  Often what is advertised during sporting events is not appropriate for small children.  My children do not need to see ads for erectile dysfunction or clips from the latest horror film.  And because I have no way of knowing that these ads are coming, I literally have to sit posed on the remote whenever the game goes to commercial.  

When it comes to the content of television programs, I am willing to let people broadcast just about anything.  If we don’t like a particular program we are all able to turn to something else.  But commercials are not something that we can easily choose to avoid.  There is no advance warning about what commercials are coming.  And often you cannot know you should turn the channel until you see something that I would rather have my children not see.

There does not appear to be any obvious solution to this problem.  The only solution I can see is some regulation limiting what can be shown in a commercial.  And such a regulation is difficult, since standards are going to vary tremendously from person to person.  In other words, perhaps other people are not bothered by what their children see on TV. Should I limit what these people can see so I can protect my daughters?

Okay, of course I should.  I mean, really, have you seen the stuff people put in commercials these days? 

– DJ

Here are the other two entries in this three-part series:

Bradbury Asks for Better Stats

Darren Rovell Shows us that Michigan is a Winner

Posted in: General