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Ads Gone Bad

It's a topic of conversation that's become all too frequent among parents and non-parents alike: what in the world is going on with these disgusting new ads?

It was bad enough that parents have to shield their children from what Hollywood calls entertainment. Now they have to be equally vigilant with the messages and visuals put forward by the advertisers who sponsor that filth.

Parents can become discouraged by the sheer intensity of the commercial manipulation of sex. It's everywhere. Reporter Matt Spector of ABCNews.com recently underlined how the hypersexualization of teenagers in advertising is intensifying. A Greek print ad for previously-owned BMW autos features a clearly teenage-looking girl shot from her naked shoulders up, her blond hair splayed around her head across the page. The ad's come-hither sentence: "You know you're not the first."

Ads for American Apparel underwear are so suggestive they seem like a "homage to pornography." That is no exaggeration. They've actually used porn actresses in their print ads. Spector reports that in one ad, a girl wearing only American Apparel underwear can be seen crawling between a man's legs. In the next shot, the model is licking the crotch of the man's underwear, glancing seductively at the camera.

Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of the group Common Sense Media, said advertisers are selling more than a product. They are marketing a complete sexual lifestyle. "Kids are exposed at younger and younger ages to more and more sexually graphic material. When you show an ad that showcases shortcuts to those things, you're not just selling underwear or T-shirts, you're selling whole ways of being."

Perle is correct when she insists that hyper-sexual ads using teenage models (or twentysomething models that pass for teenagers) creates a template for what could be considerered normal behavior for a teen, and she insists that advertisers shouldn't be allowed to use teenage models (or younger) to peddle that message: "I'd just say to the creators of these ads, 'Put your 12-year-old girl or boy in front of them and see if you repeat them'....That should be the sanity check."

Spector also focused on the new print ads for the teen drama "Gossip Girl" on the little-watched CW network. They drew attention by using the disapproving words of TV critics to sell the show. One features a teenage girl character with her eyes closed and her mouth open as a man nuzzles her neck, with the Boston Herald's verdict: "Every Parent's Nightmare."

Another ad features a topless girl in a pool passionately kissing a boy with his back to the camera. The critical words came from the New York Post: "A Nasty Piece of Work." Get this: Ad Week magazine revealed a new trick on CW's part: the ad is racier than the show. In the actual scene from the show, the girl is wearing a bikini. So network promoters have less scruples than the networks they're promoting.

A third ad by the CW network marketing department promoting "Gossip Girl" features two teenagers in bed, and triggered this critique from the Parents Television Council: "Mind-Blowingly Inappropriate." This was the ultimate spit in the face to parents. The message sent to their children: you should watch this show upstairs in your room while your nerdy parents aren't looking.

Marketing consultant Tina Wells took on this campaign in The Huffington Post with an interesting twist. To what degree are the show promoters on the CW network really just perpetuating their own kinky stereotypes of teens, instead of reflecting the real attitudes of their target audience? Advertisers see young people as nothing but sex-hungry bags of hormones. "It's what they want kids to be, but I bet when they're sitting in that room coming up with the show's concept, there isn't a person under 20 anywhere in the vicinity."

Wells goes to the numbers. "Gossip Girl" has been hailed in the media as a hot place where teens go to watch the pretty young things display the latest fashions (at least before they take them off). But it's not true. Wells suggests these smutty new CW ads are "an act of total, irresponsible desperation," since the show "averaged 2.6 million viewers per new episode, and only about 500,000 are teens, the show's supposed target market." By comparison, MTV's "The Hills" blew "Gossip Girl" out of the water in terms of popularity among teens, and it's a reality show produced on a fraction of their budget. CW's problem? Their teen scenes aren't seen as realistic.

In the final analysis, the irony of all this advertising is that it's actually the opposite of boldness or daring to try and exploit sex to sell goods. It's become the most hackneyed trick in a yellowed old book. Those executives signing off on this garbage are little more than dirty old men. And women.