Monday, August 20, 2007

Blood Isn't Just Red

The piece that follows was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on its May 1, 1999 OpEd Page. The point it makes about the long-term effects of repeated violent images on television still seems apt to me.

Blood Isn’t Just Red
by F.T. Rea

Television has dominated the American cultural landscape for the past 50 years. A boon to modern life in many ways, television is nonetheless transmitting an endless stream of cruel and bloody images into everyone’s head.

However, if you’re still waiting for absolute proof that a steady diet of video violence can be harmful to the viewer, forget it. We’ll all be dead before such a thing can be proven. This is a common sense call that can and should be made without benefit of dueling experts. Short of blinding denial, any serious person can see that the influence television has on young minds is among the factors playing a role in the crime statistics.

How significant that role has been/is can be debated.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m as dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as the next guy. So perish the thought that I’m calling for the government to regulate violence on television. It’s not a matter of preventing a particular scene, or act, from being aired. The problem is that the flow of virtual mayhem is constant.

Eventually splattered blood becomes ambient: just another option for the art director.

My angle here is that in the marketplace of ideas, the repeated image has a decided advantage. The significance of repetition in advertising was taught to me over 25 years ago by a man named Lee Jackoway. He was a master salesman, veteran broadcaster, and my boss at WRNL-AM. And, like many in the advertising business, he enjoyed holding court and telling
war stories.

He had found me struggling with the writing of some copy for a radio commercial. At the time he asked me a few questions and let it go. But later, in front of a group of salesmen and disc jockeys, Jackoway explained to his audience what I was doing was wrong. Basically, he said that instead of stretching to write good copy, the real effort should be focused on selling the client more time, so the ad spot would get additional exposure.

Essentially, Jackoway told us to forget about trying to be the next Stan Freeberg. Forget about cute copy and far-flung schemes. What matters is results. If you know the target audience and you have the right vehicle to reach it, then all you have to do is saturate that audience. If you hit that target often enough, the results are money in the bank.

Jackoway told us most of the large money spent on production went to satisfying the ego of the client, or to promoting the ad agency’s creativity. While he might have oversimplified the way ad biz works to make his point, my experience with media has brought me to the same bottom line: When all else fails, saturation works.

Take it from me, dear reader, it doesn’t matter how much you think you’re ignoring the commercials that are beamed your way; more often than not repetition bores the message into your head. Ask the average self-absorbed consumer why he chooses a particular motor oil or breakfast cereal, and chances are he’ll claim the thousands of commercials he paid no heed had nothing to do with his choices.

Meanwhile, good old Lee Jackoway knows that same chump is pouring Pennzoil on his Frosted Flakes because he has been influenced by aggressive advertising all day long, every day.

OK, if repetition works so well in television’s advertising, why would repetition fail to sell whatever messages stem from the rest of its fare? When you consider all the murders, all the rapes, all the malevolence that television dishes out 24 hours a day, it adds up. It has to.

What to do?

I have to believe that if the sponsors of the worst, most pointless violent programs felt the sting of a boycott from time to time, they would react. Check your history; boycotts work.

It’s not as though advertisers are intrinsically evil. No, they are merely trying to reach their target audience as cheaply as possible. The company that produces a commercial has no real interest in pickling your child’s brain with violence; it just wants to reach the kid with a promotional message.

If enough consumers eschew worthless programs and stop buying the products that sponsor them, the advertiser will change its strategy. It really is that simple.

As we all know: A day passes whether anything is accomplished or not. Well, parents, a childhood passes, too, whether anything of value is learned or not.

Maybe television is blocking your child off from a lesson that needs to be learned firsthand -- in the real world where blood isn’t just red, it’s wet.

* * *

1 comment:

s said...

Thanks for posting this, and yes, it is more true now than it was then. Since the deregulation of the Reagan era, tv has moved with increasing speed in the direction of children being little more than consumers-in-training, objects of billion dollar marketing campaigns that they are unprepared to filter.

Children learn critical consumer thinking (and critical television viewing) after learning to walk, to talk, to be kind, after they learn that sometimes they can and should say "no, thanks" to something that seems initially appealing. Until then, they are not viewers; they are vessels -- and it gives me a shudder to think of what they are filling up with. While you are right that advertisers aren't evil, I would say, in light of this mounting wave of marketing and brand loyalty campaigns directed at babies and toddlers, that calling those advertisers shameless and monsterously cynical wouldn't be hyperbolic.

Thanks again for posting the '99 piece. We've rarely questioned our decision to keep our daughter tv-free (so far she hasn't minded), but it's nice to read some reinforcement once in a while. Your points are all very powerful, particularly the final one.