Laughing to Keep from Crying: Humor and Aggression in Television Commercial Content
Scharrer, Erica, Bergstrom, Andrea, Paradise, Angela, Ren, Qianqing, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
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.
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. In fact, humor is attended to closely in the study because of its potential to make negative effects more likely.
Several scholars have employed broader definitions to include both physical and verbal aspects, as verbal attacks can cause harm as well. These verbal elements in definitions typically encompass threats, rejection, and hostility (Greenberg, 1980) or any "noxious" utterance "containing criticism, insults, (or) cursing" leading to a "negative affective reaction" (Oliver, 1994, p. 184) or otherwise causing "psychological and emotional harm" (Potter et al., 1995, p. 497). Mustonen and Pulkkinen (1993) brought multiple conceptual elements together in their definition of aggression as "any action causing or attempting to cause physical or psychological harm to oneself, another person, animal, or inanimate object, intentionally or accidentally," whereby psychological harm is understood as "assaulting another's self verbally or non-verbally, e.g., by threatening, forcing, submitting, or mocking" (pp. 177-178).
Yet another consideration in defining aggression was advanced by Larson (2003), who embraced the concept of including accidental harm and harm caused by acts of nature, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, by employing the term "fortuitous aggression" (p. 67). The term conveys destruction or harm that occurs from any means aside from the actions of a perpetrator. Thus, injury experienced by a character that was not caused by another character (e.g., the character gets into a car accident caused only by herself; a tornado results in death) but rather was the result of an accident or other chance circumstance (such as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as in being the victim of an act of nature) is included.
In the study at hand, a broad definition is employed that includes all of these elements, physical aggression enacted by a perpetrator with the intent to harm, physical aggression with no such intent, verbal aggression, and fortuitous aggression. Thus, accidents, verbal attacks, and harm to self or others that occurs in a humorous context (the key sources of dispute that have been identified) are each included. Such an inclusive definition is used to touch on the full range of aggression that might be evident in this understudied media form (commercial content) as well as because nothing is truly "accidental" in a carefully designed commercial or trailer/promo. Finally, this multifaceted definition is most suitable to test the hypotheses that stem from an extension of the literature to commercial content.
The Presence of Aggression in Commercial Content
The study of violence or aggression in television commercial content has received scant research attention. The few studies that do exist are largely confined to commercials that appear during sporting events and in children's programming. For example, Anderson (1997) examined over 1,500 commercials during Major League Baseball playoffs (nonviolent programming), finding 7% contained a violent act (using the NTVS definition) and 6% had at least one violent threat. In his replication, Anderson (2000) found in a similarly sized sample from the 1998 baseball playoffs that 9% of the commercials contained a violent act and 8% a violent threat.
Macklin and Kolbe (1984) examined 64 commercials on ABC, NBC, and CBS during Saturday morning children's programming and coded for aggression, defined as "hostile, injurious, destructive behavior," including "physical attacks upon individuals, verbal beratement in a wide variety of forms, and attacks against inanimate objects by individuals, all performed with hostile intent" (p. 39). They found that eight commercials contained violence (13%), three of which were targeted toward males and five of which were gender neutral. Browne's (1998) cross-national content analysis (148 American and 150 Australian commercials) also found that ads targeting and featuring boys were substantially more aggressive than those aimed at girls, employing a very broad definition of aggression as "acting against another person or thing: hitting, throwing, grabbing, loud or abusive talk, face making, and determined behavior (as in aggressively pursuing a goal)" (p. 88). Most recently, Larson (2001) found that of nearly 600 commercials during children's programming blocks on ABC, CBS, FOX, and Nickelodeon, 37% featured at least one aggressive act. Physical aggression, object aggression (e.g., hitting or attacking an object), verbal aggression, and fortuitous aggression (again, aggression with no perpetrator, e.g., accidents and explosions) were coded, with fortuitous the most prevalent (42%).
In the closest parallel to the study at hand (due to the analysis of commercials from general audience programming), Maguire, Sandage, and Weatherby (2000) studied commercials appearing during the day and evening on eight networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, ESPN, FAM [ABC Family], and MTV), defining violent commercials as those that "depicted humans (or their caricatures) as victims, or potential victims, of legal or illegal physical harm, illegal property damage, and language or behavior that suggested potential or imagined violence" (p. 127). Three percent of the 1,699 commercials that aired contained violence, with nearly twice as many commercials containing violence in the 2nd year (1997) compared to the 1st (1996).
Because the study presented here examines both commercials for products and services and commercial content that promotes television programs and movies, Oliver and Kalyanaraman's (2002) study of violence in …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Laughing to Keep from Crying: Humor and Aggression in Television Commercial Content. Contributors: Scharrer, Erica - Author, Bergstrom, Andrea - Author, Paradise, Angela - Author, Ren, Qianqing - Author. Journal title: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Volume: 50. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2006. Page number: 615+. © 2009 Broadcast Education Association. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.