Friday, December 23, 2005

We Watch South Park for Arousal

UPDATED 4:23 p.m.

I would come out of my office at the NMSU student newspaper and look up to see South Park on the newsroom television. I didn't get it. I didn't have time. Wednesday night was production night, as we published on Mondays and Thursdays. If memory served, we had to be to the printer by midnight, and I was always on deadline.

Two years later I found myself working on the copy desk at the Albuquerque Journal. South Park was the water cooler conversation piece on that desk, and I became a regular viewer. For some reason, children swearing is hilarious. Perhaps (i.e., likely) I am just demented.

Fast forward almost a decade, and I find myself to be a scientist studying emotion, attention, and memory with respect to mediated messages -- usually television. As outlined previously, I am currently investigating psychophysiological responses to humorous television commercials.

On Thursday I worked on skin conductance level. There are some interesting patterns in the data, but one ad struck me in particular.

The ad is for a now-defunct dot com company called The company allowed you to order ordinary -- basic -- household items over the Internet.

In this commercial, a young boy and girl play together (I am guessing both are somewhere around 10 years old) on the living room floor while their mom talks on the phone. The boy and girl then begin fighting over a toy and calling each other names. It starts with "dog breath" and "freakazoid" but then moves too "you're going to break it you jack-BLEEP" and "give me it you freakin' mother f-BLEEP-er" and "you stupid son of a BLEEP-ch."

Tacky and low-brow to be sure, but it is quite funny. The swearing starts in earnest about 10 seconds into the commercial. Now keep in mind that skin conductance is largely measuring activity of the eccrine sweat glands in the palm of these participants' hands. This means a few seconds elapse before skin conductance responds to an arousing stimuli.

For a fun comparison, here is the continuous response measurement for the same advertisement from a different group of participants. They were rating positive or negative where positive is up.

Returning to skin conductance, note the dramatic and sustained level following the onset of the swearing and fighting. Compare this with the slow-paced AGFA camera ad.

This illustrates that children swearing not only generates laughter, but it also generates arousal. And despite the normative declarations we might make about too much sex and violence on TV, we are arousal junkies nonetheless.

The ad concludes with the line "Ever run out of soap?" suggesting that the dumbfounded mother will be washing their mouths out. Hence the tie back to Although the ad appears to be effective, it was not effective enough, as the company did not survive the dot com burst. It's not really fair to blame that on the ad, however. The business model of selling really inexpensive items over the Internet appears to have been the fatal flaw.


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