My point: Media content standards have changed a lot since 1971. They've grown edgier and more hard-core. And the most remarkable part is that unlike the '70s, when films like "A Clockwork Orange" or the equally excellent "Midnight Cowboy" were restricted to adults, some of the most blatant of today's fare is available to anyone of any age. And I don't just mean those with unfiltered Internet access. I'm talking about network prime time. I don't just mean the occasional glitch on the Super Bowl half-time show. I mean a show broadcast during what once was called the "Family Hour."
Consider the following scene: A patient is waiting in a doctor's examining room when a scantily-clad nurse enters, bends over the table, turns and leaves, inspiring the physician to comment, "Mmm! I'd like to tap that ass." (Pause.) "I'm only kidding, she's my sister." No, it wasn't an excerpt from an adult movie. It was a scene from NBC's "Will & Grace."
Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. And I'm definitely not a censor of media content. I believe we live in a sophisticated media society, and adults should be allowed to consume the media content they want, when they want, with the exception of certain essential taboos. And "Will & Grace" touched on at least one of them. The question isn't about censorship. It's about good taste.
As writer Rachel Lehmann-Haupt chronicles in this month's cover story, Madison Avenue is walking a fine line between the cutting edge and the pornographic. When did a Web site about a subservient chicken become an appropriate way to sell hamburgers? When did it become okay for a marketer like Virgin Atlantic to buy media time on porn channels to reach business travelers? And when did it become permissible for a major packaged goods marketer like Unilever to sponsor "EvanandGareth.com," a site chronicling the quest of two slackers who try to hook up with women in bars?
Ironically, it probably began with the porn industry itself, which has been an innovator of media delivery, creating some of the earliest viable business models for the home video industry in the '70s, pay-per-view in the '80s, and the Internet in the '90s. The quest for porn helped fuel faster modem speeds, and ultimately broadband video. Purveyors of porn have been both ingenious and insidious in their development of the most covert and intrusive of new-media applications, everything from spam to spyware.
Technology aside, the most remarkable link between porn and mainstream media has been the gradual blurring of content lines. It began in the '70s, when blockbuster porn films like "Deep Throat," "The Devil In Miss Jones," and "Beyond The Green Door," segued from porn parlors to legitimate theaters. When it turned out that one of the porn industry's first stars, actress Marilyn Chambers, was also Procter & Gamble's Ivory Soap girl, P&G quickly pulled Chambers' image from its soap box covers. Instead of backing away from pornography, Madison Avenue appears to have incorporated it.