In the advertising wars to gain cellphone customers, Sprint is taking fire from an unexpected source — television reformers.
Sprint’s ads appeared on the program as a result of how television advertising works. Big advertisers buy air time in bulk to get better rates. The networks spread around their ads to reach the age groups and other audience demographics the advertisers target.
Viacom’s VH1 airs “Dating Naked,” which the council said shows “completely naked people” who are “drinking and talking nonstop about sex and their private parts.”
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A photograph the council includes online shows the program’s participants wearing only socks and shoes. The show blurs exposed body parts normally not seen in programming.
Council president Tim Winter said the group tried to contact Sprint, Samsung and other advertisers on “Dating Naked” to urge them to drop their ads from the program. The other companies’ ads did not appear on the next episode, he said.
Sprint’s and Samsung’s ads did, and the council launched its campaign calling the companies sponsors of “Dating Naked.” Its website provides prewritten emails for visitors to send to company officials asking them to drop the ads from the show.
“I wouldn’t call us a sponsor of that show,” Sprint spokesman Dave Tovar said. “We had no idea the ads are going to show up on this show or that show.”
Buying air time in bulk stretches Sprint’s advertising budget further. The company orders ad placements to reach types of viewers, and that includes a TV-14 audience, Tovar said.
And that’s how Sprint’s ads appeared on “Dating Naked.” VH1 rates the show TV-14.
The Parents Television Council has campaigned for changes to the television ratings system and how it is applied. Winter said more than half of shows are rated incorrectly and always lower than they should be rated.
One problem, Winter said, is that V-chips screen out shows based on their television ratings, which means a parent who choses to allow TV-14 shows might not want a 14-year-old to watch shows like “Dating Naked.”
A VH1 spokeswoman referred questions to Viacom, whose spokesman could not be reached for comment Monday.
The council has acknowledged that Sprint and Samsung may have not intended to advertise on “Dating Naked.” It took action when the companies’ ads aired on the second weekly episode despite the group’s objections.
Still, Winter said one way to get a network to tone down a program or change its air time to draw a different audience is to apply pressure through its advertisers. In recent years, the group has contacted AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile in addition to Sprint about their advertisements on specific shows.
“At some point in time, they are the ones writing the checks to TV networks to pay the bills,” Winter said.
Sprint’s Tovar said the company was aware of the council’s objection to its ad on the show but did not intend to respond. He said when Sprint inquired, it learned that its ad was not scheduled to appear on the show in the future.
The Parents Television Council issues its own ratings on prime-time network broadcasts based on what it considers suitable for the entire family. Most shows go unrated, but many rated shows land in the worst category.
Last week, the council’s family guide gave a red-light rating to “MasterChef,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “America’s Got Talent,” among many others, as unsuitable for children. Several shows were rated with a cautionary yellow light.
Winter said the red-light rating on “America’s Got Talent” was a mistake that he would see corrected. It must have been based on a previous year’s broadcasts. He wasn’t sure about “The Big Bang Theory” but said “MasterChef” has “constant profanity.”
This week’s ratings also are heavily red and yellow. Only “The Flash” on Tuesday evening on the CW network earned a green light.
“Parents Television Council has one green all week,” said Kerry Benson, who teaches advertising and public relations at the University of Kansas. “You can assume everything is going to offend them in some way.”
Benson said parents need to know what their children watch and apply their own standards rather than turn to advertisers to seek changes in specific programming.
“It doesn’t matter whether Sprint is sponsoring it or Samsung is sponsoring it,” she said. “You do have the right to turn off your television. You do have the right to tell your 14-year-old that’s not appropriate and deal with your 14-year-old.”