MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

The ‘Skins’ Controversy: Save the Sex for Ads | January 25, 2011

Skins, the new hour-long dramedy that premiered January 17th on MTV, was a major step for the network: not only was the show the most-hyped scripted series in the recent history of MTV, which has gained notoriety over the past decade for its reality programming; it was also poised for high ratings due to the popularity and controversy of Britain’s Skins, from which the American version was adapted. The American pilot, which focused on the quest of a socially-outcast teenager to lose his virginity, found a sizable audience: 3.3 million total viewers, with ratings victories over similar-positioned shows (Gossip Girl; Pretty Little Liars) in the ever-important youth-oriented demo. But the subsequent advertising controversy, which has dominated industry headlines for more than a week, confirms that Skins may indeed have represented a major step for MTV — albeit a step backward.

In the course of the eight days since the Skins premiere (see promo poster above), six major advertisers have pulled their campaigns from the show. The impetus came from the Parents Television Council, a federal watchdog group, which wrote the following to the U.S. Department of Justice in the wake of MTV’s first airing:

In addition to the sexual content on the show involving cast members as young as 15, the PTC counted 42 depictions and references to drugs and alcohol in the premiere episode. It is clear that Viacom has knowingly produced material that may well be in violation of several anti-child pornography laws.

From there, advertisers fell like dominoes. Taco Bell, claiming that “the show is not a fit for our brand,” dropped out last Thursday, followed quickly by GM’s car ads. Then tax giant H&R Block wanted “no part” of the program. Next came Wrigley, of Doublemint Gum fame; popular fast food chain Subway; and, yesterday, razor manufacturer Schick became the latest company to jump on the banned-ad bandwagon. For MTV, this means major losses in terms of ad revenue, especially because the network — unlike majors including NBC and CBS — reruns its shows ad infinitum throughout the week, so one hour of programming translates into approximately ten hours of actual ad-courting airtime.

Voices in defense of Skins, meanwhile, have echoed through the blogosphere for days. The show’s creative team contends that it “explores real world issues in a frank, responsible and legal way.” Its cast has made a similar — if brattier — declaration: “We’re not raising America’s children, parents are…[m]aybe [the show] will be a great conversation starter on topics they normally aren’t comfortable talking about with their kids, like sex and drugs.” Still, what’s surprising is a much deeper social issue: why aren’t any of these skittish advertisers facing criticism for backing out of a sex-charged show, when in the past they’ve leveraged sexuality to sell product?

Take, for instance, Taco Bell. In past years, the Mexican fast food chain has used Carmen Electra as a spokesperson — the model and actress whose resume includes posing for Playboy and selling aerobic videos based on striptease moves. Similarly, GM used highly sexual imagery — male models in speedos washing a Camaro — to highlight its Gay Days event in Los Angeles. (The spots were since pulled from YouTube.)
Even the Doublemint Twins campaign has arguably sexual undertones, and Wrigley also employed Chris Brown as a brand rep before his domestic abuse scandal. In fact, with the exception of H&R Block and perhaps Subway (the image above is false, but poignant), all of the aforementioned advertisers have relied on sex in some way over the years for marketing purposes. Perhaps their withdrawal from a program like MTV’s Skins emanates more from the convenience of looking good than any long-term commitment to a future of advertising sans sexuality.

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