The Subway sandwich chain has a “Social Responsibility” section on its corporate website. It claims the company seeks to create “a positive influence in the communities we serve around the world.” Given the public relations disaster Subway suffered with spokesman Jared Fogle less than two years ago, common sense should dictate Subway executives keep the company miles away from anything remotely connected to child pornography or exploitation.
Shockingly, however, Subway is a leading advertiser on one of network television’s seediest shows. Fox network’s “The Mick” has drawn the ire of critics for using kids to create culturally bankrupt “humor.” In this sitcom, teen kids are put in highly sexualized situations. Kids have foul mouths. Kids are exposed to drugs and alcohol. Such content doesn’t create a “positive influence” in Subway communities.
“The Mick” is a show about a harebrained woman, Mickey, who becomes guardian of her sister’s three kids when the sister and her husband flee the country to avoid tax charges. The show premiered in January and airs Tuesdays at 8:30 ET and 7:30 CT. It is rated TV-14, but the time of broadcast means kids younger than fourteen are surely in the audience.
The show’s sick humor makes light of teens sexting. Teens engage in drinking contests. A teen girl has sex with an adult man. Two middle school boys arrange a bathtub threesome with a girl classmate. A birthday party clown overdoses on drugs at the party. A young boy swallows a drug-filled balloon. There are jokes about male body parts. An adult shows kids how to get high on nitrous oxide out of a whipped cream can. Need more? A young teen plans to have naked pictures of himself planted in the possession of Mickey’s boyfriend to frame him for possession of child porn. Exactly the kind of content that advertisers, particularly Subway, should have enough sense to avoid.
Subway is just one of the oblivious corporate behemoths providing advertising support for this value-less program. Other advertisers include T-Mobile, Verizon and, somewhat surprisingly, Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers, of course, features Oprah Winfrey in its marketing campaigns. Oprah sits on the corporate board of Weight Watchers and is one its largest stock holders. Oprah catapulted to fame with inspiring chit-chat in America’s television living rooms, but now her image helps exploit kids making adult-oriented humor.
The show’s ratings have declined consistently over its run, losing two thirds of its audience since the January premiere. Such audience melt, coupled with the raunchy content, makes it all the more inexplicable that advertisers would invest money in it.
Remarkably, Fox Television has already announced it has put a second season of this cultural rot into production. Such is the state of prime time television. Network television has run so dry of ideas that it won’t cancel a socially damaging program that fails to generate a sizeable audience. In fact, seventeen prime time network shows have premiered in 2017, and zero have established themselves as ratings successes.
Prime time network television is not the cultural force it was a generation ago. Competition from other platforms in the entertainment world explain that in part. But television remains a primary legitimizer of what behaviors and ideas are acceptable in our broader culture. It is hard enough to raise kids in this era without having network television show them how to talk in offensive ways. But that is what is happening, as indicated in a study by the Parents Television Council. The report, released in 2016, showed that dialogue coming out of young characters’ mouths is increasingly coarse and vulgar. As one would expect, research shows nine out of ten parents believe television contributes to kids using bad language in real life.
The new chair of the Federal Communications Commission is Ajit Pai. In a recent interview regarding television content, Pai said, “As a parent, I want to make sure that my kids have a wholesome experience when they are watching.” Given the current state of FCC indecency rules and related court rulings, Pai has a steep climb to make network television behave. But society shouldn’t have to rely on government to clean up kids’ mouths on television. That could be accomplished by having responsible corporations live up to their social responsibility grandstanding and remove their advertising dollars from programs that exploit kids.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.