TV violence warnings tune teens into ads

Globe and Mail
Toronto, Ontario
May 1, 2021
By Marina Strauss

Advertiser alert: If you want teenagers to tune into your commercial, air the spot during a program that carries a warning of violence.

That's the conclusion of a recent study by researchers for the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. What's more, the study says teens are more likely to buy the products advertised during these shows.

The study carries its own warning: The industry may be so tempted by the discovery of instant arousal through program warnings, it might saturate the shows with ads for youth-oriented products. And that could reduce the ads' effectiveness.

In the study, the authors, professors Jay Handelman and Michael Parent, explain that: "The warning acts as an advertisement, in a sense, for the coming program, inducing interest in the adolescent viewer to watch the program."

What's more, viewers tend to carry this interest and arousal over to the commercials, they conclude.

The findings come at a time of heightened concern among parents and other critics who are worried about children being exposed to unsuitable television material. The debate rages south of the border following the release of new restricted television ratings, which are meant to alert parents to inappropriate programming.

There have been concerns that these classifications may actually heighten the appetite for violent programs through a "forbidden fruit" effect. Other critics have attacked the system for not going far enough. A recent U.S. study warned that the level of television violence has not abated for the past two years, leaving children unprotected from potentially negative influences.

The new Canadian study is of particular interest to advertisers of such products as soft drinks, fast food and running shoes -- goods that are purchased by adolescents, says Prof. Parent, an information systems specialist at Western. (Prof. Handelman teaches marketing at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.)

The research suggests that teenagers have significant recall of commercials that are shown during programs preceded by a warning, Prof. Parent says. The finding counters the argument that teens get so engrossed in a show touted violent that they don't concentrate on the ads.

But other forces are at work here. While advertisers who target teens have tended to gravitate toward violence-ridden shows, there is also a reverse trend emerging from the backlash against TV violence, says Peter Swain, president of Media Buying Services Ltd. in Toronto, which places ads on TV [MBSL is the largest media buyer in Canada].

Advertisers are becoming more sensitive to the negative implications of being associated with violent programming, he says.

"Sure, there's a temptation to go after big numbers. But in most corporate boardrooms, it's not worth the price of admission to be seen as exploiting violence. It's too dangerous."

And it's not as though advertisers find their teen audience easily. Indeed, teen TV viewing has dropped roughly 10 percent over the past five years, Mr. Swain says.

He believes these youngsters have shifted their interest to home computers. And many advertisers have become more focused on reaching baby boomers and even the 50-plus set, who are bigger spenders.

Mr. Swain also notes that major advertisers such as Coke and Pepsi have generally shrunk their ad spending in the past few years as they switch budgets to other promotions, including direct mailings.

Still, there are advertisers -- particularly other big multinationals -- that prefer the most cost-efficient way of advertising, and they opt for the violent programs that attract big numbers, Mr. Swain says.

Some of the more violent shows popular among adolescents are The X-Files, The Outer Limits and Millennium, he says. Broadcasters don't have trouble filling these commercial spots. Even The Simpsons, an animated favourite among teens, contains some violent scenes.

But these programs contain risks for marketers, Mr. Swain cautions. "It doesn't take much to create a bandwagon effect and go after an advertiser."