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Will the FCC Act?

Stealth Marketers Gone Wild

by DIANE FARSETTA

One of my favorite critiques of our ad-saturated modern world is in "Infinite Jest," the epic novel by recently-departed author and essayist David Foster Wallace. In the novel’s not-too-distant future, time itself has become a corporate marketing opportunity. There’s the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. That’s not to mention the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile, which is often abbreviated.

The novel’s system of Subsidized Time is hilarious … and you can almost imagine it really happening. At least corporate-sponsored years wouldn’t present the disclosure problems of today’s stealth ads — marketing messages that masquerade as entertainment or news content.

The Center for Media and Democracy believes that all advertising should be as clearly announced as the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. That’s why we just filed a comment with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is debating how its sponsorship identification rules apply to product placement, product integration and other types of "embedded advertising" relayed over television or radio stations.

In 2003, Commercial Alert urged the FCC to address product placement disclosure. "Advertisers can puff and tout, and use all the many tricks of their trade," the watchdog group wrote. "But they must not pretend that their ads are something else."

Especially, we would add, when that "something else" is news programming.

The intrusion of marketing and public relations messages into newscasts goes far beyond the video news release epidemic we’ve researched extensively, written about and urged the FCC to address, with limited success. In 2006, one in eight television news directors surveyed said they had either already done product placements in their newscasts or were considering doing so. An academic analysis of hundreds of television newscasts from 2004 detected at least one instance of "stealth" advertising in 90 percent of the news programs.

Clear disclosure of product placement and product integration in entertainment programming is important. But, for our comment to the FCC, we decided to focus on what we know best: news media. Sadly, there’s more than enough evidence of undisclosed or poorly disclosed stealth ads in newscasts to warrant a submission focused on the issue.

Read our comment — on our website, at http://www.prwatch.org/node/7772 — for more on embedded advertising in news programming. You can also read the comments filed by other groups and individuals by visiting the FCC’s electronic comment filing system and searching for proceeding number 08-90.

Not surprisingly, the submitted comments fall into two broad groups: consumer advocates calling for better disclosure and industry advocates wanting to maintain the status quo. On the consumer side, Commercial Alert reiterated its call for clear and concurrent disclosure of embedded ads. The Writers Guild of America, West also supported clear "simultaneous disclosure" and included screen shots from various television shows to illustrate how current notices are barely legible. The Children’s Media Policy Coalition called for a ban on "embedded advertising and the use of interactive links to commercial advertising on children’s programs." The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Marin Institute both highlighted issues around stealth ads for alcohol. An individual commenter expressed concern about the extent of product placement in "radio music, music videos and internet music."

On the industry side, the National Association of Broadcasters urged the FCC to take no action, stating that "the current rules already address the issues raised." GroupM, a WPP subsidiary that described itself as "the world’s leading global media investment management operation," claimed that embedded advertising is already "fully transparent." The National Cable & Telecommunications Association warned the FCC that it lacks the authority to require cable networks to disclose embedded ads. The Motion Picture Association of America responded with "an emphatic ‘no’" to the question of whether movies shown on television should disclose product placements. Viacom didn’t submit a comment, but did file notice that its representatives met with FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell in July, to discuss "the state of the advertising market today and the challenges and opportunities facing media companies in light of fragmenting viewership and the increasing use of digital video recorders." Lastly, the industry-funded think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation simply dismissed the entire process as "the Commission’s latest effort to micromanage the free marketplace of ideas, i.e., the media."

The big question, of course, is where the FCC goes from here. Stay tuned.

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She participated in the "stridently anti-American" National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis, on a panel titled, "The Changing Role of Media Critics." She can be reached at: diane@prwatch.org

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