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Product placement makes prime time one long ad

They get flush turning TV shows into promotions — and all you get are these lousy product placements.

Beware: Television more and more is shill-o-vision, where commercial breaks still come and go but the commercials never end.

Commercials for Sears products, which outfit ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. For Coke, with logo-inscribed glasses nursed by Simon and his comrades on Fox's American Idol. For Clairol, when a contest to be "Herbal Essences Girl" pitted two pals against each other on an episode of the WB sitcom What I Like About You.

And this is only the start. Foiling ad-aversive TiVo users, TV honchos burn with gold-rush fever as they stake out a zap-proof advertising gold mine: the programming itself.

Hear CBS boss Leslie Moonves as quoted last month in Broadcasting & Cable magazine: "We're making more and more of those deals: The kind of cars they drive in CSI; the kind of orange juice they drink in Two and a Half Men."

In 2004, the value of television product placements (a product or brand name inserted for marketing purposes into entertainment fare) increased by 46.4 percent over the year before, to $1.88 billion, according to the research firm PQ Media.

For the networks and producers raking it in, that's quite a haul.

Meanwhile, the audience is at the receiving end of a sales drive neatly tucked into the story line — whether it's for the Buick touted by sexy Gabrielle on ABC's Desperate Housewives or the Campbell's Soup served up on NBC's American Dreams.

A product promo can even become the narrative's defining force, especially on reality shows like The Apprentice, in which episode-length challenges are custom-made for sponsors Burger King, Mattel toys and Crest toothpaste. And thanks to a new kind of alliance between sponsor and producer, there are whole series being created from scratch that showcase a product as their primary mission.

Not that "advertainment" is limited to television. Video games, novels, movies, pop songs, music videos, Broadway plays — every nook and cranny of the culture, it seems, comes preinstalled with product plugs. Or soon will.

But TV is a little different. Its broadcast channels are carried on public airwaves and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which lately has been taking a new look at embedded advertising — and its potential for catching the audience off-guard.

"I think product placements can be deceptive, because most viewers don't realize they're really advertisements," says FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein. "That's why there's a law that requires disclosure. The question is: How well are we enforcing it?"

ABC, CBS and UPN all insist their policy is to comply with laws passed by Congress nearly 80 years ago requiring that broadcasters and other involved parties identify anyone who gave them "valuable consideration" to air anything. (Fox, NBC and the WB did not respond to a request for comment.)

But it may be that the letter of the law is heeded more faithfully than its spirit. A fine-print "promotional consideration" message in the clutter of a program's closing credits just may not be adequate to get the point across.

"Something that flashes by in the blink of an eye is hardly real disclosure," says Adelstein.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, goes further.

"We think that broadcasters are thumbing their nose at the law," says Ruskin, whose nonprofit advocacy group petitioned the FCC nearly two years ago to require more prominent advisories, including labeling on-screen each instance of product placement as it occurs.

The FCC has yet to rule on the petition.

But Adelstein agrees that "we may need to change our rules to address the fact that, even when there is some disclosure, people still don't know that they've been advertised to. At a minimum, it seems that advertisers should disclose up front (in the program) there's going to be a product placement, so that when somebody sees it, they know what they're seeing."

Adelstein is outspoken about cracking down on violations of federal payola laws, which (along with undisclosed product placements) can include video news releases misrepresented as legitimate news reports, and appearances by consumer product experts who evaluate products with which they have an unacknowledged financial tie.

He has invited viewers "to hit their record button" when they see an apparent breach, then to share that tape with the FCC for a possible investigation. (Background information for the public on payola is available on the FCC Web site.)

"Viewers shouldn't be unwitting victims of a stealth campaign to manipulate their minds," says Adelstein. "If they know that somebody's trying to persuade them about something, they can take that into account."

And also take into account how, with shill-o-vision booming, entertainment has become another word for hucksterism.

 

Frazier Moore, Houston Chronicle. July 20, 2005

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