The man in the television commercial holds up an electric razor and begins shaving a leg. Sitting up in bed, he strokes the calf with the razor several times before a woman, draped in a sheet, rises from a supine position beside him. The leg, it turns out, belongs to the woman.
American viewers of commercial television are likely to be seeing ads like this one soon. Slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, television advertising is going to have scenes like the one described above, racier ads creating a difficult set of decisions for television network and station executives.
"I think we're going to be bombarded with sexy commercials in the coming year," said Thomas E. Cookerly, president of the broadcast division of Allbritton Communications, the owners of WJLA-TV.
There's been no avalanche of skin, liquor or other groundbreaking ads since the National Association of Broadcasters' ad code went out the window a year ago.
But, to judge by the comments of broadcasters here for the NAB's annual convention, the American public is bound to see more bare skin, more alcohol consumption and more direct promotion of hygiene products on television within a short period of time.
The ad code, abandoned after a Justice Department challenge, made life easy for broadcast executives. It spelled out general guidelines and provided a way for television magnates to duck tough decisions about good taste and even politics.
But the industry is being forced gradually to come to grips with the questions of taste that new ads are likely to raise, and the screening of the women's razor commercial here is an early sign of what may become a major public debate in the coming years.
The well-attended program here featured foreign and domestic ads for products such as toilet paper, promotion for a birth control series in a London newspaper and commercials for a variety of other products that utilize various degrees of nudity to attract viewer attention.
What broadcasters must soon deal with goes beyond sexy advertising. Hard liquor is not being advertised on television these days, and that may come. Even beer ads spare audiences the titillation of seeing former jocks down their favorite refreshments.
And how television station managers deal with politically sensitive questions raised by advocacy advertising, such as spots produced by pro- and anti-nuclear power groups, is going to test their ability to grapple with difficult political as well as social issues.
The general feeling here among station managers is that localism will guide the decisions. Cookerly, whose company owns stations in conservative southern Virginia in addition to WJLA-TV, frankly admits the differences in market tastes.
"Some things are acceptable in Washington, but not in Lynchburg and Roanoke," he said.
Another factor that will determine whether ads run is the time of day under consideration. These days, more risque commercials have a better chance of airing in late-night slots than on Saturday mornings, for instance.
But the executives also generally acknowledge that bans on hard liquor spots and those that show imbibing have little relationship to contemporary standards. "If you started showing chug-a-lug contests, that would probably be a problem," Cookerly said.
Those kinds of general assertions about public taste are relatively easy. Some executives say they have no difficulty deciding when to prohibit the broadcast of graphically violent ads for horror or cop films. Though not a simple decision, surely, particularly in light of what passes for adventure on television these days, turning down an ad for a grade B celebration of murder seems relatively risk-free.
What is more difficult, however, is the problem posed by the local department store, for instance, which buys thousands of dollars of ad time a year, and wants to show a little more of its lingerie or the models that wear it.
William G. Moll, president for broadcasting at Harte-Hanks Communications, admitted that cable television's transmission of X- and R-rated movies showing "bare breasts and bare bottoms" indicates that in some of the communities his firm serves, there is "clearly an appetite for" more adventuresome sexuality on television.
But it's Moll's view, however, that commercial broadcasters are going to avoid overt nudity in commercials for some time. "Showing a little bare breast is not quite acceptable today. It will be a long time before broadcast managers will be comfortable showing it even late at night."
The problem is potentially even more difficult for television executives because they are being advised strongly to consult no one on the individual decisions or policymaking efforts, other than their station lawyers. Because of the broadcast industry's historic tussles with antitrust authorities, the NAB doesn't want to offer advice, other than to urge executives to hang up the phone when a competitor wants to discuss anything related to advertising standards.
Moreover, it doesn't seem that the difficult questions raised by these ads are a responsibility television executives seem to want; however, most recognize that it comes with the territory. Drawing lines based on their perceptions of the communities' tastes "is one of the main things we get paid for," said James Coppersmith, vice president and general manager of WCVB-TV in Boston.
But if broadcasters were looking for guidance here, they got little of it. Jay Greenfield, a New York lawyer, suggested that broadcasters remember the "three 'I's"--that their decision on what ads to run be informed, intelligent and independent. If the ads screened here and the comments of broadcasters are any indication, the issue is likely to be a major one in coming years.
Combine the ads screened here with some of the more free-wheeling programming already found on cable services shown deep in middle America, and the prospect is obvious. Porn star Marilyn Chambers, who long ago graced the Ivory Snow box, could once again be selling soap on television.