Laughing to Keep from Crying: Humor and Aggression in Television Commercial Content

Article excerpt

The study of the presence of aggression in television programs is very common, but considerably less frequent are analyses of aggression appearing in television commercial content (commercials for products and services as well as promotional messages for television programs and movie releases). Yet a cursory glance at commercial content shows that there are depictions of harm or injury experienced by characters. In fact, anecdotal observation suggests that such depictions are often played for laughs, with the advertised product or service shown as a solution to a problem depicted comically through injury. The combination of aggression and humor has the potential to contribute to desensitization and aggressive behavior by making light of harm. This study documents aggression in a sample of commercial content drawn from prime-time television and measures its co-occurrence with the humorous intent of the commercial.

The unpredictability of potential exposure of children to aggression in commercial content makes this a worthy issue to research. Unlike programs that now bear ratings that caution parents about objectionable content, commercials and movie trailers show up on screen quickly and largely without warning. If that commercial content contains aggression, children may be incidentally exposed, despite the best efforts of even the most vigilant parents.

Literature Review

An Overview of Conceptualizations of Aggression and Violence in Media Content

"Violence" in television programs has been comprehensively investigated (e.g., Signorielli, 2003; Smith et al., 1998), with research findings largely consonant in pointing to its substantial and consistent presence. Yet there has been considerable debate regarding how to define such terms as violence and aggression in content analysis studies and in the social science research at large (Potter, 1999). Although some researchers use the terms synonymously, most conceive of aggression as a broader, more inclusive concept compared to violence. Aggression is typically thought to cover a host of behaviors, circumstances, and events that can cause harm and injury of varying sorts and differing magnitudes (Bandura, 1973; Berkowitz, 1993; Potter, 1999). Typically, violence connotes a narrower set of incidents compared to aggression, and those incidents are arguably more severe and largely confined to physical rather than verbal attacks (Potter, 1999; Williams, Zabrack, & Joy, 1982).

When attempting to measure violence or aggression in media content, among the central disagreements are whether accidents, psychological harm stemming from verbal rather than physical abuse, and slapstick comedy and other forms of humorous violence should be included (Mustonen & Pulkkinen, 1997). Two very prominent definitions of violence, that of Gerbner and associates and that employed in the National Television Violence Study (NTVS), have confined themselves to physical acts rather than verbal. Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox, and Signorielli (1978) defined violence as the "overt expression of physical force, with or without weapon, against self or other, compelling action against one's will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing" (p. 179). Accidents would be included in the definition, as there is no stipulation about intent, and humor would be counted if potential physical harm was evident (Signorielli, 1990). Somewhat similarly, NTVS researchers (Smith et al., 1998; Wilson et al., 1997) defined violence as "an overt depiction of a credible threat of physical force or the actual use of such force intended to physically harm an animate being or group of beings" and included situations in which the aftermath is shown on-screen but the actions causing the harm occurred offscreen (Wilson et al., 1997, p. 1-48). Accidents lacking intent to harm, therefore, would not be counted, but the definition allows for the inclusion of humorous incidents. …