Television advertisers not only sell their brand by advertising, they make television itself possible. Absent the pay-per-view formulation of the likes of HBO, or taxpayer-funded PBS, anything viewed on television, both broadcast and cable, requires corporate sponsorship. It follows then that these advertisers bear direct responsibility for the double-scoops of raunchy sex, obscene language and graphic violence that is flooding the airwaves, oftentimes aimed directly at children, children whose parents are then expected to purchase their wares at K-Mart.
Here and there one will find the more idealistic advertiser that is troubled by the polluted popular culture it is not just subsidizing, but promoting. It's gratifying to learn that companies here and there will withdraw their sponsorship - sometimes quite publicly - when they see the awful content they are buying. Sad to say: When these responsible corporations do withdraw their support, often their money is immediately replaced, and the message of dissent nullified, by other businesses often eagerly take their place on the latest fashionable bandwagon of sludge.
It's happening right now with the hottest new TV hit, ABC's Sunday night soap opera "Desperate Housewives." After a few over-the-top episodes, Lowe's Home Improvement and Tyson Foods stepped off the sleazy-go-round. Tyson found the show was "not consistent with our core values," and Lowe's said their ad guidelines include avoiding "programming with gratuitous sex and violence." Lowe's even admitted apologetically the show "fell through the cracks in terms of being evaluated."
Good for them. But what happened next? News reports revealed that thanks to boffo ratings, ABC doubled the ad rate it charges for 30 seconds from $156,000 to $300,000, and other advertisers are lining up to sponsor the program.
K-Mart, Maybelline, Carnival Cruises, Aquafresh toothpaste, and 1-800-Flowers.com are some of the corporations eager to underwrite this slimy program. "Desperate Housewives" really should have an even more obvious title, like "Cynical Suburban Sluts." It's just the latest in a long series of shows that aims to pulverize the cartoonish 1950s black-and-white stereotype of "Leave It to Beaver," creating in its ancient wake a catty, snarky, amoral cesspool.
The program premiered with the desperate-housewife narrator shooting herself in the head. Soon, we flash back to see the narrator sitting around with the other leading housewife characters, cracking wise at the awful husbands they married. "It's like my grandmother always said, 'An erect penis doesn't have a conscience.'" Another housewife replies: "Even the limp ones aren't that ethical." Bree, the scary Martha Stewart wannabe character, insists, "This is half the reason I joined the NRA," so that when her husband went out of town for conferences, "I wanted it in the back of his mind that he had a loving wife at home with a loaded Smith & Wesson."
There, within a few brief minutes, is the tone of the whole trashy enterprise. Love and marriage aren't real, just Potemkin villages people hide behind. Children aren't a source of joy and pride, just an aching sore of need. Men are thoughtless cads. How proud of this are you, Maybelline?
These wives and mothers hate their lives. "Ease up, you little vampire," says one as she breast-feeds. Her older boys are so nasty they run over ladies with shopping carts. The divorced housewife tells her 12-year-old daughter, "Tell me again why I fought for custody of you?" The girl says, "You were using me to hurt Dad." Mom kisses her on the forehead: "Oh, that's right."
Maybe the daughter should buy her some roses at 1-800 Flowers.com.
The things they do to their husbands are even worse. One is cheating on her husband with the 17-year-old gardener. Scary Bree accidentally gives onions to her onion-allergic husband Rex. He said, "I can't believe you tried to kill me." She casually replies, "Yes, well, I feel badly about that." In another show, as the assembly of still-married neighbors is racily sharing laughs over their sexual adventures, Bree brings the party to a dead stop by saying: "Rex cries after he ejaculates." Let no one say this show isn't lewd and crude. It's capturing both soap-loving women and men who like the nudity and sex scenes, and if this is what it takes to capture an audience, Carnival Cruises will pay for it.
The advertisers are happy - everyone from Pontiac and L'Oreal to, how appropriate, the anti-depression drug Wellbutrin - and so what if the culture rots. This show's writers might think they're not moralizers, but they are. The moral of this story is: Life's too short and love's too fake to behave with honor. The advertisers that fund this ought to be known by what they make possible. Color your hair with L'Oreal, buy yourself a Pontiac, so you can cheat on your husband with a teenaged boy in it. The advertisers approve.