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TV commercials increasingly mirror social change

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Back in the early 1960s, I had a barroom conversation with an old guy who snarled that he never watched the “Ed Sullivan Show” on TV anymore because it was one of the first programs that regularly featured black guests. He thought black people should never be shown on television — at least not in a favorable light.

Indeed, all through my youth in the 1950s, black people were very rarely featured in entertainment programs on the tube. That situation gradually began to change in the 1960s, but only gingerly. Jack Benny’s butler, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, was acceptable, but lead roles for the likes of Dihann Carroll or Bill Cosby (as a sidekick on “I Spy” in the ’60s, not on his wildly popular family sitcom in the ’80s)  met with more than a little resistance among viewers.

Eventually, however, blacks became more commonplace on television, but the progress was more gradual than we may remember it. Just four years ago, there was a bit of a fuss when a commercial for Cheerios cereal featured a racially mixed family — black father, white mother and biracial daughter (see photo above). The company received racist complaints on its web site, but the favorable response was considerably greater.

Today, racially mixed couples in commercials are not uncommon. We even see apparently gay couples from time to time. Corporate America seems to think that TV spots reflecting changing social mores are good for business — or at least not a big risk.

But then, television in general is more liberal — perhaps even libertine — these days. Language is often more profane or off-color. Fewer words get bleeped anymore. Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show allows the S-word. And perhaps the most notable breach of old standards occurs on animated comedies like “American Dad” and “Family Guy.” These shows aren’t just night-time fare. A Rockford station airs “American Dad” in late afternoon, when the audience presumably includes lots of kids.

No, television is not your grandmother’s medium anymore.

 

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