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Highway's No Place For A Giant TV Sex Ad

February 9, 2006
Commentary By Robert M. Thorson

"Sex Seven Nights a Week." That's what I remember reading last month on the gigantic TV screen perched above the westbound exit of I-84 at Sisson Avenue. I was instantly perturbed for three reasons: selling sex to kids; the intrusion of television writ large; and traffic safety.

At first I thought the sign was an illegal solicitation for prostitution. Only when I got closer did I recognize it as an advertisement for "Sex and the City," the popular TV show, which I haven't seen because I swore off commercial TV 32 years ago.

I wondered what the three kids in my school car pool thought about the image of the seductive reclining woman, especially the sixth-grade girl staring out the back right window. I didn't ask because I guessed it might make her uncomfortable or confused.

I'm concerned about young kids being force-fed inappropriate sexual images without the consent of their parents. This isn't just my opinion as the father of three sons and a daughter. It's the opinion of S. Liliana Escobar-Chaves and colleagues, authors of a recent article in the Journal of Pediatrics, which begins as follows: "Adolescents in the United States are engaging in sexual activity at early ages and with multiple partners. The mass media have been shown to affect a broad range of adolescent health-related attitudes and behaviors including violence, eating disorders, and tobacco and alcohol use. One largely unexplored factor that may contribute to adolescents' sexual activity is their exposure to mass media."

I'm just as concerned about the unwanted intrusion of television into the lives of adults in public places, regardless of content. I was taught that if something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

So here goes: The object above the Sisson Avenue exit is a full-color, flat-paneled, pixilated electronic appliance that shows wide-screen digital images and carries clever commercials for donuts, vehicles, drugs, heating oil, health care, insurance and other things in addition to sex. This sure sounds like TV to me.

True, the screen is wider than normal - about the size of the 18-wheelers that sometimes block my view. And true, the pictures change only every few seconds. But no matter what the advertising industry might say, this looks more like slow-motion television than a "chameleonesque" billboard to me. Since I detest commercial television, this roadside dose of unwanted advertisements for things I don't need adds insult to the injury of my rush-hour commute through downtown Hartford on the giant S-curves of I-84.

My final concern is about traffic safety. Regular paper-and-ink billboards on flat stretches of open highway might make the roads safer by keeping drivers engaged. But in congested urban areas with multiple lanes and on/off ramps, they virtually command us to read while driving and are distracting.

Electronic billboards are much worse for me. First, the bright lights draw my attention away from what I'm supposed to be doing - in my case, driving a car full of kids safely to school. Second, the fact that the sign changes intermittently - instead of being a constant stream of images - makes me want to watch it even more, if only to know what will be shown next. Third, some of the TV images are of automobiles that seem to be floating above the road, confusing my defensive-driving instincts.

Eventually, the safety risk of roadside TV will become clearer as research data becomes available. Much harder to determine will be the degree to which the ubiquity of TV damages the adult psyche and the extent to which age-inappropriate images harm our children.

We are not the beneficiaries of roadside TV. We are its victims.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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