MTV’s “Skins”: The Ethics of Profiting from Teen Sexuality

There’s been a lot of chatter in the last few days about MTV’s teensploitation show, “Skins.” Of course, one theory says that that’s just what MTV has been hoping for — a lot of free advertizing.

I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Since I’m quoted in that story, I’ll just cut to my own conclusion:

“Even if you decide that this show is not out-and-out evil and that the show is legal from a technical perspective, that doesn’t really eliminate the significant social and ethical issues it raises,” said Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto’s Clarkson Center for Business Ethics and author of the Business Ethics Blog. “Teenagers are both sexual beings and highly impressionable, and because of that, they’re vulnerable to just these kinds of messages. You have to wonder if there isn’t a better way to make a living.”

I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on how this will turn out — in particular on whether pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers will convince MTV to can the show. If it does, then this controversy turns into a nice example of how just the wrong kind of corporate culture can produce bad results. Consider: there are an awful lot of people involved in conceiving and producing, and airing a TV drama. In order for Skins to make it to air, a lot of people had to spend months and months going with the flow, basically saying to themselves and each other “Yes, it is a really good idea to show teens this way, to use teen actors this way, and to market this kind of show to teens.” Hundreds of people involved in the production must have either thought it was a good idea, or thought otherwise but decided they couldn’t speak up. If this turns out badly, MTV will have provided yet another example of how things can go badly when employees aren’t encouraged and empowered to speak up and to voice dissent.

5 comments so far

  1. Julian Friedland on

    Glad to read your quote in the NYT this morning Chris.

    And I agree.

    I’d like to know more about where you’d draw the ethical line though. If you ask me, regardless of how this plays out, the rough line you seem to draw here on professional obligations to consider teen impressionability and vulnerability was already breached years ago.

  2. Jim Gaa on

    Last week I was in London and happened upon a new show on Channel 4 (10:00 pm on a Thursday night) called “The Joy of Teen Sex”. See:

    I suppose all the characters of this unscripted show are adults, but they’re still teens. So, their audience clearly will include young people the same age range as the audience of “Skins”. It’s all given an educational slant, and is not intended to be sensationalistic. I don’t know the content of “Skins”, but “The Joy of Teen Sex” is clearly meant in part to normalize what many people would regard as uncomfortable topics, from crabs to genital piercing (which was shown).

    The following url is to a summary of the first episode, together with viewer comments. Most of the comments appear to be from young people (including teenagers), and are mostly very favorable. (The only really negative comment I noticed was from a self-described 49-year-old Christian.)

    So, maybe it’s not so much that the boundary has been breached, as that it has simply moved. Much like social attitudes towards same sex have moved, with young people mostly seeing no issue.

  3. Julian Friedland on

    Very interesting point Jim.

    The issue though, for me, is very much how the activities are portrayed. As you yourself say:

    “It’s all given an educational slant, and is not intended to be sensationalistic. I don’t know the content of “Skins”, but “The Joy of Teen Sex” is clearly meant in part to normalize what many people would regard as uncomfortable topics, from crabs to genital piercing (which was shown).”

    I don’t think many ethicists would have any problem with this, and they might even encourage it.

    What I criticize (admittedly having not yet seen Skins myself, but having read much in the top press about it) is the promotion and even celebration of irresponsible sexual and drug-use behavior.

  4. ethicssage on

    All great comments and thanks, Chris, for your thoughts. I agree with Julian that the line was breached years ago and with Jim that it has been moved over time as our cultural mores have changed. Without taking a stand on it one way or the other, who would have thought 20 years ago that certain states would sanction gay marriage? I suppose the abortion issue decided in Rowe v Wade was viewed the same way 40+ years ago. The blatant sexuality and exploitation of shows like “Skins” demonstrates that the hole in our moral ozone has gotten larger. The only answer I can see is for people to stop watching these kinds of shows, but I doubt that will ever happen — at least in my lifetime.
    P.S. Hi, Jim. It’s Steve Mintz out here in cyberspace.

  5. Skins | Ethics for Adversaries on

    […] at my Business Ethics Blog, I focused on the way the Skins controversy serves as an example of how a kind of corporate […]

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