Unsafe and violent behavior in commercials aired during televised major sporting events

Robert F. Tamburro, Patricia L. Gordon, James P. D'Apolito, Scott C. Howard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Objective. Injuries are the leading cause of death in children, and media exposure seems to increase children's risk-taking behavior. Televised sports are commonly viewed by children. The objective of this study was to determine the proportion of commercials that depict violence or other unsafe behavior during major televised sporting events that are aired before 9:00 PM. Methods. We obtained a list of the 50 sports programs that were most highly rated by Nielsen Media Research and that were televised between September 1, 2001, and September 1, 2002. These 50 programs included Winter Olympics events (n = 15), National Football League (NFL) regular season games (n = 14), NFL playoff games (n = 10), Major League Baseball World Series and playoff games (n = 7), the NFL Super Bowl (n = 1), the National Basketball Association Western Conference Final Game (n = 1), the College Football Rose Bowl (n = 1), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Championship game (n = 1). Two other events were reviewed as well: the final round of the Masters Golf Championship, because it was the only sporting event rated in the top 50 of the previous year that was not represented by a similar sporting event in the study year, and the Daytona 500 National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing race, because it was the only event rated among the top 75 of the study year that was not represented by a similar event (ie, there were no other golfing or auto racing events reviewed). These events were included because different sporting events may attract different viewers and different advertisements; thus, their inclusion provides a more comprehensive evaluation of the topic. For sporting events with >3 programs in the top 50 (NFL regular season games, NFL playoff games, Winter Olympic events, and Major League Baseball World Series), representative samples of events were assessed. Surrogate events were analyzed for programs that were aired after 9:00 PM (Eastern Time) to control for the reduced likelihood of viewing by children after 9:00 PM. For example, afternoon telecasts of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Regional Final and National Semifinal games were assessed in place of the Championship game, which started after 9:00 PM. Weekend afternoon telecasts of the Winter Olympics (3 successive weekends) were assessed as surrogates for all Olympics telecasts. For the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the National Basketball Association Conference Championship games, which began before 9:00 PM but ended after that time, we evaluated only commercials that aired before 9:00 PM. All commercials that were aired during these programs were reviewed at standard speed for unsafe behavior or violence. Commercials that were aired during pregame, postgame, or halftime periods were not assessed. Commercials were categorized according to the product being advertised. Unsafe behavior was simply defined as any action that could have harmful consequences or that contravened the injury prevention recommendations of national organizations. Violence was defined as any intentional physical contact by an aggressor that had the potential to inflict injury or harm or the legitimate threat of such action. All commercials were reviewed by at least 2 investigators; when the 2 could not agree on the findings, a third investigator was used to resolve differences. The percentage of commercials and of commercial breaks that portrayed violent or unsafe behavior was determined for each category of event and advertised product. A commercial break was defined as a series of commercials shown during a single break from the sporting event. Χ2 analysis was used for all analyses, and relative risks with 95% confidence intervals were determined. The proportion of commercials that depicted unsafe behavior and/or violence during each sporting event was compared with the proportion of such commercials that were observed during the Masters Golf Tournament (which had the lowest proportion of commercials depicting such behavior). The proportion of commercials that contained violent/unsafe behavior for each advertised product was compared with the proportion of such commercials that advertised food or nonalcoholic beverages. Food and nonalcoholic beverage commercials were selected as the reference because they are a well-defined, common category of commercial. Results. Of the 1185 commercials assessed, 14% (n = 165) displayed unsafe behavior and 6% (n = 66) depicted violence. Of the 322 commercial breaks, 158 (49%) contained at least 1 commercial showing unsafe behavior or violence. Sixty-three commercials required review by a third investigator to adjudicate violence or unsafe behavior; 20 of 52 were ultimately judged to portray unsafe behavior, and 4 of 11 were ultimately judged to portray violence. Sporting events differed in the proportion of commercials that showed violence or unsafe behavior. The Super Bowl had the highest proportion of such commercials, and the Masters Golf Tournament had the least (relative risk: 4.3; 95% confidence interval: 1.4 -12.5). The Masters Golf Tournament was noteworthy for the complete absence of violent commercials. Only 18% of reviewed commercials advertised movies or television programs, yet these commercials accounted for 86% of all violent commercials. Forty-eight percent of commercials that contained violence were for movies, and an additional 38% were for television programs. Nearly two thirds of all commercials for movies contained violence, whereas 15% of all commercials for television programs contained violence, a rate that increased to 22% when commercials for other sporting events were excluded. Several categories of commercials portrayed unsafe behaviors; commercials for automobiles accounted for the most. In 8 different categories, 10% or more of the commercials depicted unsafe behavior, and 7 were significantly more likely to depict such behavior than a food or beverage commercial. Conclusions. Children who watch televised sports view a significant amount of violent and unsafe behavior. In accordance with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for television viewing, parents should both limit and directly supervise children's viewing of these events. Our findings suggest that parents should remain present during commercials or should consider implementing commercial-skipping technology. In addition, efforts should be made to regulate the content of commercials that promote television programs and movies on the basis of the hour at which the sporting event is aired. Moreover, the sports, movie, and television industries should be encouraged to adopt models of advertising that limit or eliminate such content. These efforts could help to ensure that the viewing of televised sporting events is a safe and positive experience for children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e694-e698
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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