Sex Roles

, Volume 57, Issue 3, pp 201–210

Sexual Content on Mainstream TV Advertising: A Cross-cultural Comparison

Authors

    • The Department of CommunicationYezreel Valley College
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11199-007-9247-8

Cite this article as:
Hetsroni, A. Sex Roles (2007) 57: 201. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9247-8

Abstract

A content analysis of 1,785 American ads and 1,467 Israeli ads maps the representation of sexual content on mainstream TV advertising in the two countries. This content appears in less than 5% of the advertisements. Most of it is mild and portrayed in the conservative context of an established relationship. Explicit material, socially discouraged practices, references to sexual responsibility and complete nudity are extremely rare. Israeli advertisements tend to present a higher share of sexual content than American ads, and male models are more likely to be partially nude than female models—but these differences are minor in extent.

Keywords

AdvertisingSexual contentTelevisionCross-culturalIsraelUSA

This study maps the representation of sexual content in American and Israeli network television commercials in order to assess the frequency in which mainstream media feature controversial material, and to examine whether the level of explicitness in advertisements varies across cultures within the western world. Another question that is asked is whether the portrayal of sexual conduct in TV advertising conforms to societal norms concerning gender roles.

For more than three decades researchers have been documenting the appearance of sexual content in various TV genres—from soap operas to music videos (Gunter 2002). However, only scant attention was given to the presentation of sexual material during commercial breaks. Several studies (e.g. Bretl and Cantor 1988; Ganahl et al. 2003) have analyzed the representation of sex-related stereotypes in advertisements, but the difference between sexual content and sex-related stereotypes is not purely semantic: An analysis of stereotypes asks whether the presentation of sex roles (which may or may not be connected to actual sexual behavior) is in line with societal norms, whereas counting occurrences of sexual activity in advertisements sampled from different cultures, as done in this work, provides answers to different questions; specifically—how saturated with sexual imagery is advertising, how universal are the outlines of sex representation, and how different men and women are in initiating this behavior according to advertisements (Reichert 2003a).

Why Should We Study the Presentation of Sexual Content in Television Advertising?

First, in general it is important to measure the frequency in which sexual content appears on the home screen, since television’s portrayal of sexual behavior helps to shape viewers’ conceptions of sexuality and, particularly, the perception of sexual conduct among sexually inexperienced spectators (Sutton et al. 2002). While commercial broadcasting rarely uses a didactic tone to preach about sex, it does, indirectly, edify the essence of sexual intimacy through processes of modeling and the formation of parasocial relationships between viewers and characters, including models who star in commercials (Ward et al. 2002). This “relationship” may sometimes have a notable influence on the personality of viewers, who look for role models in favorite characters (Cohen 2001). Although an exposure to sexually charged advertising rarely yields an immediate behavioral response (Gunter 2002), the appearance of sexual content may have an exceptionally prevailing cultivation effect. This means that viewers, who are at least partly inoculated to the commercial message itself (by their awareness of the advertiser’s intentions), remain more defenseless, where it comes to internalizing norms about sexuality that go beyond the purchase of specific products and services and unconsciously accept them as representing actual behavioral scripts in the real world (Reichert 2003a). The fact that, as opposed to programming, TV advertising constitutes a content sphere to which viewers are exposed regardless of their specific viewing preferences intensifies the need to know how sexuality is presented in this channel. Finally, since the existence of explicit content in advertising has been the cause of public concern in different countries (Boddewyn 1991), it is intriguing to see how prevalent this allegedly disturbing material actually is.

Sexual Content in American TV Programming and Advertising

While our current knowledge of the composition of sexual content in TV advertising is very limited, past studies have been documenting a rather consistent depiction of the appearance of this material in the programming in America. We know that, except for a few quaint channels which specialize in showing provocative material, most of the mainstream stations, and particularly the networks, have not been pushing the envelope in the depiction of explicit sexual content throughout the last decades (Sapolsky and Kaye 1997; Gunter 2002). As opposed to what some educators, politicians and even academic experts proclaim, the frequency in which sexual content appears in network prime-time programming has mostly declined since the “sex-lib” wave of the late 1970s (Hetsroni 2007b). Within the corpus of sexual content that is seen on the screen as part of mainstream programming there is a preponderance of lighter material such as kissing and petting and a much smaller representation of explicit activities akin to intercourse or culturally discouraged material like sexual deviations (Fisher et al. 2004). The typical presentation of sexual activity avoids reference to the potential unwanted consequences of sexual conduct (e.g. pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases). Thus, sex is most often portrayed as a partly implicit and nearly always concern-free behavior (Farrar et al. 2003). The contextual framework in which sexual activity is presented is principally conservative: Over two-thirds of the acts are between partners that have an established relationship (Farrar et al. 2003). The presentation of sexual content in the form of “socially approved fun” may win the heart of corporate stockholders (who sponsor the programs), and of conservative viewers (and let us not forget that a major bulk of network viewers are people who hold a strong religious faith and oppose the public presentation of sexuality - see Fisher et al. 1994). Adherence to gender role stereotypes (e.g. males’ initiative and dominance in romantic situations) is another mean to appeal favorably these conservative viewers.

Having said all of that about the programming, there is no guarantee that the same words apply to commercials. As opposed to programs, advertisements face a tougher challenge, since they consist of limited time to please the masses and cannot afford the benefit of momentary annoyance that 45 min episodes without an unequivocal marketing intention may be allowed to have. Therefore, advertisements are prone to contain an even smaller dose of objectionable content (Maguire et al. 2000; Pardun and Forde 2006). The presence of sexual material in mainstream TV commercials has been, for many years, limited to moderately revealing clothing—usually a two part bathing suit. Even by the mid 1990s, the share of less than fully-dressed models in TV ads was barely 10% (Lin 1998). Only two studies attempted to code TV advertisements for the presentation of actual sexual conduct (rather than dubiously provocative clothing). Maguire et al. (2000) analyzed a sample of network commercials from the 1996–1997 season and detected an almost null presence of sexual behavior. Pardun and Forde (2006) analyzed advertisements that were aired during the 2000–2001 season and came up with figures that are three times higher than the numbers reported by Maguire et al. (2000), but are still low by any standard: merely 1% of the running time. This reported share of sexual content in TV commercials is lower than this content’s share in most of the prime-time programs (Pardun and Forde 2006), and is considerably lower than its share in magazine advertisements (Reichert 2003b; Reichert et al. 1999). While the broadcast networks’ hesitations to take risks with indecent material, which are understandably greater than the wavering among specialty magazines publishers (Boddewyn 1991), may be partly responsible for the low frequency of sexual content, the advertisers, on their part, may not be pushing the stations to take risks with sexy ads, since the signaling of sexuality in commercials is not necessarily a way of assuring a positive outcome for the brand. In addition to the risqué posed by conservative consumers’ boycott of products promoted by messages loaded with sexual images (Boddewyn 1991), the persuasive effectiveness of sexy ads is somewhat dubious, since erotic content increases attention to the ad, but not necessarily enhances recollection, nor does it encourage positive attitudes toward the brand (Alexander and Judd 1978). As the level of eroticism increases, the intended communication effects either turn negative or dissipate (LaTour et al. 1991), up to the point where strongly straightforward sexual messages that have no apparent connection to the product may seem distasteful even to liberals (Gunter 2002). Thus, although the First Amendment may successfully protect the right to include erotic content in advertising, de-facto, the presence of this material in mainstream TV commercials is likely to be rather minor. This has not discouraged the American public from agreeing with statements such as “there is too much sex in television advertising” (Dolliver 1999). This can be a case of pluralistic media ignorance—a situation in which public opinion misperceives the true world of popular media content. It may be facilitated by often-heard calls from politicians (see Obama 2005), educators and academic experts (see Kunkel 1999) to put restrictions on the freedom to show “obscene advertising”. It is also possible that the public just does not make the distinction between sexual messages, which contain erotic content, and sexist messages, which conform to traditional sex roles distinctions but do not feature sexual material, and that most of the resistance is, in fact, targeted at the latter, which are, by far, more highly prevalent (Lin 1997).

A Cross-cultural Look at the Presence of Sexual Content in Advertising

The content of advertisements varies considerably across cultures (Frith and Mueller 2003). Thus, the portrayal of sexuality in American TV advertising is not necessarily representative of the circumstances in other cultures. Boddewyn (1991) suggests that the availability of explicit content in advertising is indicative of cultural liberalism, and that therefore such content is rare in advertisements from puritan-masculine cultures. American culture is (in comparison with other western nations) relatively puritan and masculine, emphasizing traditional sex role distinction, enforcing powerful taboos on the public articulation of sexuality, and is not entirely lacking signs of machismo. In contrast, feminine cultures like the Scandinavian nations or Israel keep a more open approach to free sex, and are characterized by gender egalitarianism in many aspects, including sexuality (Hofstede 2001). Of course, cultural masculinity is not the sole determinant of the appearance or disappearance of sexual content in advertising. Additional contributing factors are political freedom (as it applies to censorship), sexual liberation and the dominant persuasive approach (Frith and Mueller2003). The more democratic and protective of free speech society is, and the more sexually liberated people are—the higher the chances to find sexual content in advertisements (Nelson and Paek 2005). Studies that compared the USA with less masculine and more sexually liberated (but equally democratic) countries found out that American print advertising has one of the lowest levels of sexual appeals in the western world (Frith et al. 2004; Nelson and Paek 2005), despite the fact that from a legal standpoint commercial speech is better protected in America than in other nations (Boddewyn 1991).

Against this background, and particularly in light of the fact that the presence (or lack of) explicit sexual content in mainstream TV advertising has not been systematically examined in any country except the USA—and even in the USA things might have changed in the years that passed since Maguire et al. (2000) and Pardun and Forde (2006) had collected their data—it is intriguing to conduct a cross-cultural comparison. Such study would tell if the limited presence of sexual content in TV advertising continues, and whether it is exclusive to America or perhaps reflects a universal norm. In the current study, Israel embodies a culture that—in comparison with the USA—is less masculine and less puritan, but equally democratic (Hofstede 2001). Public expression of sexuality is far more common in Israeli popular culture (television shows, theatrical films, staged entertainment acts, etc.) than it is in the USA. The laissez faire approach to sexuality in Israel historically derives from the Zionist ideology that, for more than a century, placed a strong emphasis on nation building and left people’s private lives relatively out of public control (Almog 2004), whereas the dominance of Protestant ethics in the USA led to a more austere approach to personal matters, including sex life (Hofstede 2001).

Research Questions and Rationale

Our research questions pertain to the frequency in which sexual content appears in advertising, the context in which this content is presented, the adherence of the presentation to sex role norms and cross-cultural differences. Like few other advertising studies (e.g. Lin 1998), we look at different levels of nudity as an articulation of sexuality, but in consonance with the perception of “sexy ads” in the eyes of the public at large (see Reichert and Ramirez 2000), we do not consider nudity to be the sole expression of sexuality and add to it instances of actual sexual conduct and context features. This comprehensive definition of sexual content was also employed in studies that mapped the appearance of sexual content in TV programming (Sapolsky and Kaye 1997; Hetsroni 2007b).

The first of our three two-part research questions deals with the prevalence and nature of sexual content in American and Israeli mainstream TV advertising.
  1. RQ1a:

    How frequently does sexual content appear on mainstream television advertising, and what are the most frequently portrayed sexual conducts?

     
  2. RQ1b:

    Are there cultural differences in the patterns noted in RQ1a?

     

In light of the results of earlier studies (Lin 1998; Maguire et al. 2000; Pardun and Forde 2006), we do not expect to find a high rate of ads that contain any sexual content. The share of socially discouraged sexual practices such as homosexuality and paraphilia is expected to be particularly low. Compared to American advertising, Israeli advertising may contain a somewhat larger share of sexual content due to Israel’s more highly feminine and more sexually liberated cultural profile (Hofstede 2001).

The second research question deals with sex role differences during sexual conduct—as presented in American and Israeli mainstream TV advertising.
  1. RQ2a:

    To what extent is the portrayal of sexual conduct on mainstream television advertising in line with common sex role stereotypes, such as male dominance and female passiveness?

     
  2. RQ2b:

    Are there cultural differences in the patterns noted in RQ2a?

     

We expect to find a considerable adherence to common sex role stereotypes. Recent analyses of commercials point out that although these stereotypes have lost some of their grip, they are still quite common in advertising in general, and in sexual advertisements in particular (Reichert 2003a). We do not expect to detect substantial cultural differences in this category, since studies of Israeli TV advertising indicate that it is saturated with sex role stereotypes (Weimann 2000).

The third research question concerns the context of the relationship between the partners who take part in sexual conduct—as reflected in mainstream television advertising in America and Israel.
  1. RQ3a:

    What is the relationship context (established or ephemeral) in which the sexual conduct takes place in mainstream TV advertising?

     
  2. RQ3b:

    Are there cultural differences in the patterns noted in RQ3a?

     

Studies that mapped the context of sexual activity in mainstream television programs describe it to be most typically a component of a steady relationship, and much less frequently an unexpected outcome of an incidental meeting between strangers (Farrar et al. 2003). No study, as of yet, examined the context of sexual conduct in TV advertising, but we see no reason to assume that the advertisements, which are assumed to be generally less daring than the programs (Pardun and Forde 2006), would present a significantly less conservative picture than what is featured in the programming. While in comparison with America, Israeli culture may hold a more relaxed approach to sexuality in general, it never accepted (not to say endorsed) infidelity and extramarital affairs (Almog 2004). Therefore, the chances to find large cultural differences in the presentation of the relationship context of sexual behavior in mainstream advertising are not high.

Method

We coded American and Israeli TV advertisements that were broadcast in the major broadcast networks of the two countries during the prime-time hours. These networks attract the largest number of viewers from different social strata and serve as arena for mass-orientated advertising.

Sample

A sample consisting of 1,785 American ads and 1,467 Israeli ads was composed of four constructed weeks of commercials that were aired in the years 2004 and 2005 during the prime-time hours (8 p.m.–11 p.m.) in the four major American broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) and in the two most highly watched Israeli terrestrial stations (Channel 2, Channel 10). The first constructed week represents the winter months (January–February), the second represents the spring (April–May), the third represents the summertime (July–August), and the fourth represents the fall (October–November). The rationale for taking different periods of the year as strata is so as not to fail to notice seasonal variations in advertising (Kassaarjian 1977). Within the four two-month-periods, days were randomly picked until complete constructed weeks emerged. Within the constructed weeks, all the ads that were aired during the designated hours were sampled. Each of the four US networks contributed one week of prime-time advertising to the sample. Each of the two Israeli networks contributed two weeks of prime-time advertising to the sample. The slightly larger number of American ads in the study is due to the fact that the commercial breaks in American broadcasts (15 min/h) are longer than the respective breaks in Israeli broadcasts (12 min/h). Duplicate ads, as well as public service announcements and promo clips for the stations’ own programs, were omitted in order to document commercial messages that make up the core of marketing communication (Ganahl et al. 2003). A similar inclusion and omission policy was put into action in previous studies of sexual messages in TV advertising (see Maguire et al. 2000; Pardun and Forde 2006). Therefore, our findings are comparable to past research.

Coding Book

Each ad was coded for the appearance of sexual content, which was defined for the purpose of this study as sexual conduct or nudity. This definition follows accounts of what constitutes “sexual content” in the eyes of consumers (Reichert and Ramirez 2000), and is also in line with the approach of content analyses of sexual content in television programming (Sapolsky and Kaye 1997; Hetsroni 2007b). Sexual conduct categories were classified as follows:
  1. A.

    Normative sexual conduct: Passionate kiss (between partners of the opposite sex); Petting (sexual touching involving partners of the opposite sex); Heterosexual intercourse.

     
  2. B.

    Non-normative sexual conduct: Oral sex; Anal sex; Homosexuality (any sexual act between partners of the same sex); Group sex; Sadomasochism and unforced sexual aggression; Fetishism; Autoerotic behavior (masturbation); Cross-dressing and exhibitionism (unexpected and non-requested exposure of one’s genitalia in front of strangers).

     
  3. C.

    Illegal sexual conduct: Rape and sexual aggression (coerced sexual act that may involve violence, which is not part of a game and to which one of the partners unequivocally objects); Prostitution; Incest.

     
  4. D.

    Sexual responsibility: Contraception; Venereal diseases.

     

We coded the sex roles of partners, as they are reflected in sexual conduct, by answering the questions who initiates the act (the man, the woman or both) and who is the dominant partner during the act (the man, the woman or both). The relationship context of sexual conduct was coded according to the following scheme: Part of an established relationship (marriage or long-term romantic relationship); Ephemeral (one night stand, sexual conduct that involves strangers); Unknown. The cues for determining the context of the relationship could be visual (e.g. presence of a wedding ring, cohabitation) or verbal.

Nudity was coded distinctively for male and female models. The categories were:
  1. A.

    Unblurred unclad exposure of the entire body.

     
  2. B.

    Blurred unclad exposure of the entire body.

     
  3. C.

    Unblurred exposure of the upper part of the body.

     
  4. D.

    Blurred exposure of the upper part of the body.

     
  5. E.

    Exposure from the shoulders and upwards.

     

Reliability

The coding was performed by a team of 25 students who were not privy to the specific goals of the study. Ten of the coders were Israeli and coded only Israeli ads. The rest of the coders were American and coded only American ads. Each coder worked alone and analyzed about 250 Ads. The coders were trained in a group for 6 h and on an individual basis for additional 2 h. Each ad was analyzed twice by different coders-one male and one female. Cohen’s Kappa statistic was computed to measure agreement between coders and coding reliability. Its value for any pair of coders and across all the categories ranged from .81 to .89 in the American sample and from .82 to .92 in the Israeli sample. These figures are well above the minimal values that the literature suggests for the coding of advertisements (Kassaarjian 1977). Cases of disagreement between coders were presented at a tandem discussion and, if remained undecided after the discussion, were resolved by the author.

Results

RQ1

To answer RQ1, which asked about the stakes to find sexual content in TV advertisements, we measured the frequency of sexual conduct and nudity. Let us start with sexual conduct and take a look at Table 1, which gives the frequency for a variety of sexual behaviors in America and Israel. Cross cultural differences were estimated by a χ2 statistic. The size of the effect was measured by an asymmetric λ coefficient (with the country occupying the role of the independent variable).
Table 1

Frequency of sexual conduct on American and Israeli television advertising.

 

USA (N = 1,785, %)

Israel (N = 1,467, %)

\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 1 \right)}}} \)

λ

Any sexual conduct

1.2

3.4

15.9***

.016

Normative sexual conduct

 Sexual kissing

.8

1.7

5.7*

.04

 Petting

.4

1.5

9.7**

.06

 Heterosexual intercourse

.1

.2

NS

 

Non-normative sexual conduct

 Homosexuality

.0

.3

NS

 

 Masturbation

.0

.3

NS

 

 Oral sex

.0

.0

NS

 

 Anal sex

.0

.0

NS

 

 Group sex

.0

.0

NS

 

 Sadomasochism

.0

.0

NS

 

 Fetishism

.0

.0

NS

 

 Exhibitionism and cross-dressing

.0

.0

NS

 

Illegal sexual conduct

 Rape and sexual violence

.0

.0

NS

 

 Prostitution

.0

.0

NS

 

 Incest

.0

.0

NS

 

Sexual responsibility

 Contraception

.1

.3

NS

 

 Venereal diseases

.0

.1

NS

 

*p < .05

**p < .01

***p < .001

Note: Since few of the advertisements featured more than one type of sexual conduct, the percent of advertisements containing “any sexual conduct” is not equal to the combined percent of advertisements with different sexual conducts.

In both countries, the most remarkable finding is the low frequency of normative sexual conduct, the miniscule presence of sexual responsibility and the complete omission of non-normative and illegal sexual acts. Sexual conduct of any type appears in just 3.4% of the Israeli ads and in only 1.2% of the American ads. While the inclination of Israeli advertising to feature a higher frequency of sexual conduct than American advertising is statistically significant for all the conducts together, and specifically for kissing and petting, (see the χ2 values in Table 1), one cannot avoid the conclusion that in both countries sexual conduct is a rare sight in mainstream TV advertising.

To examine the second aspect of sexual content, nudity, let us look at Table 2, which gives details about the share of different levels of unclad exposure for male and female models in American and Israeli ads.
Table 2

Levels of nudity on American and Israeli television advertising.

 

USA (N = 1,785, %)

Israel (N = 1,467, %)

Males

 No nudity

96.0

95.2

 Unblurred unclad exposure of the entire body

.2

.3

 Blurred unclad exposure of the entire body

.2

.0

 Exposure of the upper part of the body (not blurred)

3.2

3.8

 Exposure of the upper part of thee body (blurred)

.3

.5

 Exposure from the shoulders and upwards

.1

.2

Females

 No nudity

98.5

96.9

 Unblurred unclad exposure of the entire body

.4

.3

 Blurred unclad exposure of the entire body

.2

.2

 Exposure of the upper part of the body (not blurred)

.1

.2

 Exposure of the upper part of the body (blurred)

.2

.6

 Exposure from the shoulders and upwards

.6

1.8

In both countries, the most salient finding is the scarcity of nudity. In none of the four groups of models (males in Israeli ads, males in American ads, females in Israeli ads, and females in American ads) does the share of completely exposed or partly exposed bodies exceed 5%. Furthermore, partial exposure rather than total nudity is the dominant norm. Complete nudity appears in less than half a percent of the ads. Cultural differences are not significant for male models {\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 1 \right)}}} = 1 \)p > .30}. They are significant for female models {\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 1 \right)}}} = 6.5 \)p < .05}, which means that the body of Israeli female models is exposed slightly more often than the body of American females, but the size of the effect is meager (λ = .001). Sex differences (3.8% of full or partial nudity among male models compared to just 1.9% of full or partial nudity among female models) are significant, regardless of culture, but the significance of this gap {÷2 = 30 p < .001}, is more statistical (due to the large sample) than substantial (λ < .001).

To sum up, as expected, is in both countries the frequency of sexual content on TV advertising is minute, consisting mainly of mild normative expressions. Israeli advertisements contain a slightly larger share of sexual content. However, this cultural difference (as well as the gender difference in nudity) is conspicuously small.

RQ2

RQ2 asked to what extent the presentation of sexual content on American and Israeli TV advertising would adhere to traditional sex role stereotypes. We examined two stereotypes—males’ inclination to be the initiators of heterosexual acts and males’ dominance during the course of the acts. Table 3 shows, for each country, the gender distribution of the two indicators.
Table 3

Gender distribution for initiation and dominance of sexual acts on American and Israeli television advertising.

 

USA (N = 24, %)

Israel (N = 52, %)

Initiation

 Female

29.2

25.0

 Male

8.3

21.2

 Both

62.5

53.8

Dominance

 Female

13.3

21.1

 Male

13.3

15.4

 Both

73.4

63.5

The predominant pattern is of gender reciprocity and egalitarianism in sexual conduct. The majority of the acts are mutually initiated and do not point to one of sexes as the dominant partner. No significant cultural differences are noted—not for the initiation of the act {\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 2 \right)}}} = .5 \), p > .75}; and not for the dominance during the act {\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 2 \right)}}} = .1 \)p > .90}.

To sum up, as opposed to the expectations, the portrayal of sexual behavior on television advertisements does not reflect sex-role stereotypes, according to which women are submissive objects, subjected to men’s initiatives. This reflects the situation in America and in Israel.

RQ3

Last, we come to RQ3 and examine the relationship context of the sexual conduct, as reflected in mainstream TV advertising in America and Israel. Table 4 gives the distribution of this context in both countries.
Table 4

Relationship context of sexual conduct on American and Israeli television advertising.

 

USA (N = 24, %)

Israel (N = 52, %)

Relationship

 Established

60.0

7.7

 Ephemeral

16.0

7.1

 Unknown

24.0

85.2

A notable minority of the sexual acts in American ads (24%) and a big majority of the acts in Israeli ads (85%) are presented without clues that specify the relations between the partners. In the American sample, however, there is an uncontested majority of acts (60%) that are performed in the context of an established relationship between the partners, whereas in Israel the share of these acts is just 8%. The cultural difference is statistically significant {\( \chi ^{2}_{{{\left( 2 \right)}}} = 76.6 \)p < .001} with an impressive effect (λ = .188).

To sum up, while in both countries a notable share of the sexual acts that are presented in TV advertising do not reveal a lot of information about the context of the relationship between the partners, only in Israel the group of undisclosed context constitutes the majority of the acts. In the USA, in contrast, six out of ten acts involve steady partners. This confirms our expectations of finding a majority of established relationships in America. Since the context of most of the acts in Israeli advertisements remains unknown, our expectations about this country, in practice, cannot be confirmed or refuted.

Discussion

Major Findings Regarding the Prevalence of Sexual Content in TV Advertising

The most consistent finding that crosses over cultures is the low frequency of sexual content. This material is, by all means, a rare sight that pops out into the screen in just about one out of every 80 ads in the USA and in only one out of every 30 ads in Israel, where it is slightly more prevalent. In both countries, explicit behavior (e.g. intercourse), non-normative conduct (e.g. homosexuality) and illegal activities (e.g. prostitution) are almost entirely absent from the screen. A similar principle applies to nudity: The share of less than fully-dressed models is quite low to begin with (not even 5%), and most of these models are only partially naked. Male models expose the upper part of their body more often than female models, but let us not forget that displaying a woman’s breast in public places (e.g. the beach) is still less common than the uncovering of the man’s chest. In fact, even though the male’s bare chest is mentioned in several studies as an indicator of sexuality (see, for instance, the work of Piron and Young 1996), there is still controversy as to whether this unclad appearance constitutes any sexual provocation (Reichert 2003a).

The slightly higher share of sexual content in Israeli advertising reflects the fact that—in comparison with America–Israeli culture is more feminine, less puritan, puts fewer restrictions on the public expression of sexuality (Hofstede 2001), and is more sexually liberated (Almog 2004). However, this does not suggest that Israeli advertising is over-abundant with explicit sexual imagery (unless a figure of .2% of advertisements that depict intercourse indicates “overabundance”).

One may look at the relative similarity in the presentation (or lack of) sexual content in the two countries as a sign of a more general cultural resemblance. This resemblance, which finds expression in various forms of popular culture from TV game shows (Hetsroni 2001), through children’s toys (Bloch and Lemish 2003), and up to corporations trademarks (Avraham and First 2003), is based upon close diplomatic and military relations between the two countries and stems from an undisguised economic and political dependency of Israel on the USA. Another reason for the cultural similarity might be that a significant number of the advertising professionals in Israel have learned their trade in America (Hetsroni 2007a), and might have adopted American persuasion techniques, including the limited use of straightforward sexual imagery, during their studies.

An interesting question in light of the findings is whether the relative scarcity of sexual content in any of the countries is the result of a strict regulation policy. In the USA, where advertising is protected by the First Amendment, there is very little content censorship. Most of the advertising cases that are dealt with by the FTC (the federal agency which investigates consumers’ complaints) and the FCC (the federal agency in charge of broadcasting regulation) pertain to deceptive advertisements (Keenan 1994), In Israel, on the other hand, television advertising is strongly regulated by a governmental agency named The Second Authority for Radio and Television (Hetsroni 2007a). Yet, despite the relatively rigid regulation of TV advertising in Israel and the lenient approach of the US law in this matter, Israeli commercials feature a greater amount of sex than American ads do, probably because self censorship is more effective than governmental interference. As a rule of thumb, American advertisers (and to a considerable extent Israeli advertisers as well) are quite reluctant to take risks with indecent portrayals, probably because they are aware of the ineffectiveness of the most straightforward sexual messages (Gunter 2002) and know about the strong opposition of mass audiences to the public presentation of sexuality (see Fisher et al. 1994 for findings from American surveys and Bar-Lev 2003 for figures from Israel). In both countries conservative pressure groups (e.g. Christian Coalition of America in the USA and the ultra-orthodox Shas in Israel) put effective pressure by boycotting advertisers that cross the line (Boddewyn 1991). This practically limits the use of sexual appeals in advertising to cases where the target market is exceptionally liberal (Gunter 2002).

Gender Roles During Sexual Conduct Presented in TV Advertising

The tendency toward gender egalitarianism in the portrayal of sexual conduct and the deferral of common stereotypes about the female passive–submissive role in sexual behavior that we found in ads from both countries was not predicted. As opposed to the expectations, the commercials present equal dominance and mutual initiation as the most prevalent pattern in sexual conduct. Moreover, the share of acts initiated or dominated by women is even slightly higher than the share of acts initiated or dominated by men. Here, advertising takes a progressive approach that stands in contrast with its reluctance to show non-normative sexual conduct. This is a showcase of what Ogburn (1964, p.459) calls “the principle of speed differences during processes of cultural change.” According to Ogburn, processes of cultural change are hardly ever synchronized, since they are fueled by power struggles between ideologies that speed up some aspects of the change and slow down others. In our case, a radical feminist ideology might have induced the presentation of a gender-egalitarian view of sex roles during sexual activity, whereas a conservative perspective could have pushed not to overdo with the amount of sexual content and to avoid altogether from presenting non-normative sex. While the egalitarian presentation of sex roles in the course of sexual conduct disseminates a progressive message gender-wise, the minute frequency in which this conduct appears in advertisements undermines the effective value of the message.

Sexual Content in TV Advertising and Public Opinion

Despite the minor presence of sexual content in TV advertising, as evidenced here and in at least two recent works (Maguire et al. 2000; Pardun and Forde 2006), the majority of Israelis and Americans feel—according to polls—that there is too much sex in television advertising (Bar-Lev 2003; Dolliver 1999). Politicians hurry to offer “remedies,” as demonstrated in the words of Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-IL):

I watch television with my daughters and I can tell you that when we’re in the middle of a family program and a commercial for Cialis comes on, it’s more than troubling to find yourself wondering how you’ll explain certain medical conditions that last longer than three hours to a four-year-old and a seven-year-old... Raising your children has become exceedingly difficult in a mass media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence and materialism. If the industry fails to act—if it fails to give parents advanced controls and new choices—Congress will(Obama 2005).

Renowned academic experts speak in a very similar voice:

It seems clear to me that the television industry has consistently made choices about showing sex and violence that move us closer and closer to the need for more stringent regulation (Kunkel 1999).

The inevitable question is how come such remarkable attention is given to a minor phenomenon? We offer a number of explanations to this seemingly out of proportion concern: First, when we speak about the USA, although the frequency of sexual conduct in mainstream TV advertising is still meager, it has quadrupled in less than a decade (see Maguire et al. 2000 for comparison). This trend stands in contrast with the decrease in the prevalence of sexual content in mainstream network programming over the last two decades (Hetsroni 2007b), so even if public concern over the increase in “indecent TV advertising” is exaggerated, it has at least some factual basis. For people who oppose any presentation of sexuality in public (and there are many conservatives who share this opinion), even a tiny percentage of sexual ads may seem “too much” (Fisher et al. 1994; Lambe 2004).

Second (and referring here to both of the countries), the condemnation of advertising for showing too much sex may be part of a general critical stance towards the advertising industry, blaming it for price increase and loss of integrity in marketing (Barl-Lev 2003; Mittal 1994).

A third explanation that applies to both countries suggests that TV viewers may experience pluralistic media ignorance (a failure to estimate correctly the true picture of television content), because—as proposed by Greenberg’s drench hypothesis (Greenberg 1988)—a small number of particularly salient programs (or advertisements), which receive extensive press coverage, can have a profound impact that overshadows the larger bulk of less salient and less talked about shows and advertisements. For example, the much discussed scandalous campaigns of Calvin Klein’s clothing and cosmetics, which feature seemingly underage models in provocative poses including masturbation, can create the false impression that many of the advertisements are full of promiscuous sex, when, in fact, over 95% of them do not contain even the slightest reminiscence of sexual conduct or nudity.

Last, a cognitive explanation suggests that since the typical reception of the commercial text is a low involvement task, which does not include a detailed mental storage of source details, people who believe that TV advertising is full of sex might have lumped together memories of recent TV commercials with recollections of some of the latest print ads that are more heavily saturated with sexual imagery (Reichert 2003b; Reichert et al. 1999).

Study Limitations and Final Words

Since we know that sexually inexperienced viewers may rely on advertising as a source of information on sexuality (Sutton et al. 2002), it is time to let know what these viewers can learn from the current offerings of mainstream TV advertising. The answer is not much, due to the low frequency in which sexual material is displayed. The typical depiction of sexual conduct in advertisements as a normative, not particularly explicit, activity does not expose the viewers to potentially objectionable material, but does not raise their awareness of the need to act responsibly either. The presentation of sexual conduct as an act performed by committed partners (particularly in American advertising) complements the conservative non-controversial approach in an effort not to annoy conservative audiences.

As in any content analysis, we have to recall what was exactly measured to avoid overly comprehensive conclusions (Kassaarjian 1977). Our coding scheme considered only actual sexual conduct and substantial nudity, since these indicators were used in previous analyses of televised sex (Sapolsky and Kaye 1997), and are in line with what the man on the street defines as “sex in advertising” (Reichert and Ramirez 2000). On the other hand, the application of a relatively strict scheme left out of the picture a few subtle erotic expressions, including what Goffman (1979) terms the feminine touch (non-explicit self-touching; cradling of objects and provocative body positions without a partner), which cannot be regarded “sexual conduct” in the literary sense of the word, but some scholars see them as indirect evidence of amativeness (Gunter 2002). If we added these expressions to the list, we could have possibly detected a higher frequency of “sexual” content. In other words, our findings are not only reflective of broadcasters and advertisers’ determination not to take risks with objectionable content, but are also shaped-to some extent-by the operational definitions.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007