Tempting Teens with Spicy Commercials

You know commercials are controversial when they make the morning news programs. Add teens and sex into the equation and you might just choke on your coffee.

On September 11, Good Morning America covered racy Clearasil and Carl's Jr. ads that target teens with highly sexualized and suggestive dialogue and images.

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The Clearasil campaign currently drawing the ire of parents is entitled “May Cause Confidence.”  The ads equate confidence with sex. 

In the first commercial featured in the GMA story, a teenage boy hits on a single mom who has apparently been left by her husband.  In the kitchen where she is preparing food, he stands across a kitchen island from her and says, “It must be lonely now that Mr. K left.”  The camera cuts away to the mom regarding the boy with a “did-you-really-say-that?” expression.  The camera cuts back to the boy, who delivers what can only be described a as a “come hither” look and says, “I'm really good company.” The tag line “Clearasil may cause confidence” appears over the scene. 

The second Clearasil commercial featured in the GMA piece shows a mother sitting on the couch looking through a photo album.  She is seated next to her daughter's boyfriend and the daughter is on the other side of the boyfriend.  Mom says, “Here she is, naked in the bath.”  The young teen girl leers at the boyfriend and says seductively, “You should see me now.” There is no mistaking what she means.

Even more over the top is the Carl's Jr. ad for a patty melt on “flat buns.”  That commercial features a teacher in a skin tight business suit bumping and grinding on her desk to a rap song about flat derrieres being sung by her male students dressed in “bling” that would make a gangsta-rapper green with envy.  The Tennessee Education Association has called for the ad to be pulled.

GMA reporter Bianna Golodryga reminded viewers that Carl's Jr. previously drew ire from the public for its soft-porn hamburger ad featuring Paris Hilton in a skimpy bathing suit “washing” an expensive car with a fire hose.  The story aired footage of that commercial as well.

Anybody lose their appetite yet?  Remember this is all on TV before 8:00 in the morning.

So why the sexualized messaging targeting teens?  Advertising executive Eric Hirshberg told GMA  “They might be looking at research that says teenagers have changed, we need to keep up with the times, we need to become more overtly sexual,” he said.

Hirshberg noted that Clearasil is “messing with” a brand that's had a different “tonality” for a long time. He added, however, “Controversy is not a problem as long as you can take the heat. You know, you've got to really not mind alienating the people outside of your target in order to get a more exaggerated response and reaction from your target.”

According to Golodryga, Carl's Jr. told her their ad wasn't meant to “demean” teachers, it was “just a funny hamburger ad.”  Clearasil said their ads represent “humorous and unrealistic representation of an awkward family event.”

What may truly be unrealistic is the idea that an advertiser should take responsibility for its actions.  In the search for “buzz” companies continue to sink to new lows – now they're suggesting irresponsible sexual behavior to children.

After Carl's Jr. ran the infamous Paris Hilton ad and used Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner in ads, entrepreneur Carl Karcher said he was “just heartbroken that a company he founded on Christian principles has taken such an amoral act.”  What would Karcher, a staunch Catholic and social conservative, say about the company's latest bump and grind?

Advertisers spend billions of dollars every year trying to influence the behavior of consumers. When will someone on Madison Avenue make the connection that the messages that influence purchasing decisions may also influence behavior?

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.