Understanding Our Response to Sexist Carl’s Jr. Commercials

By Ella Torres

In a room of over one hundred students, some sitting on the floor or cramped in a corner to get a seat, Esther Thorson illustrated the complexity of understanding and processing how we react to commercials.

“The response to a commercial is partly you and it’s partly the commercial. It is a complex blend of the two that we don’t yet understand very well,” said Thorson, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, last Thursday at Boston University’s Photonics Center.

Thorson has devoted “many many years” to studying TV commercials. She wants to better understand how people respond to ethically problematic commercials, such as those portraying the degradation of women, potentially harmful behavior, stereotypes and the like.

In one study, Thorson showed 18 to 25 year olds ethically problematic commercials and recorded their reactions. Yet what she found was a lack of response rather than a controversial one.

“Lo and behold, not a single one of them ever mentioned a problem… insults to women, use of women’s bodies to sell brands, insults to minorities – no problem,” said Thorson.

“So we got to thinking, why is that?”

Her own theory points to the culture that today’s youth grow up in. “They have learned, perhaps, that relativism is a really important philosophy. Anything goes. I have my way of living, you have your way of living and it’s all ok,” she said as she roamed the stage. “That kind of attitude could lead to nothing bothering anybody in terms of these commercials.”

Esther Thorson speaking on advertising at the Photonics Center|Photo by Ella Torres
Esther Thorson speaking on advertising at the Photonics Center|Photo by Ella Torres

However when Thorson furthered the study by giving the study participants negative adjectives to pair with the commercials, she found they were eager to match those negative words with the problematic commercials, despite not acknowledging any problems with the ads when they were first asked what they thought.

Thorson’s theory, though, is one among many on how people react to commercials. Constructionists believe that society seeks to understand a message through their own personal history. This means the consumer is the most important element of the ad. Still others focus on the encoded message – the message of the commercial – more than who is watching.

Thorson has combined those two ideas into what she calls a “mutualist theory.” A mutualist would say consumers and advertisers co-create meaning in complex ways as opposed to it coming from only one or the other. And while the theory is still in the works, it seems to better explain one’s reaction to a commercial.

After a 10-minute question and answer session, Thorson left the audience with one thing in which she was confident: “Nobody wants to be persuaded. They want to be seduced.”

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