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Embedded TV Ads: Here Comes the Spin

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Product placement is finally on the FCC's radar, and pro-industry magpies are out in force trilling a consistent message: "Back off, Big Brother." We should not be surprised. Nor is it any wonder that a press release urging the FCC to take action, issued by 23 watchdog groups, including Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Commercial Alert, Free Press, Public Citizen, Common Sense Media, and the Parents' Television Council, barely broke the sound barrier. Ditto a plea for regulation by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

Industry is right: we know product placement when we see it. Those branded props are a growing irritation. However, product integration is a very different story. Dialogue, scenes and whole plotlines are being scripted, not just to promote products, but to inculcate attitudes, values and behaviors. The WGA calls it "stealth advertising" and it's a serious matter.

America tired of advertiser-controlled content fifty years ago, when embedded ads were ubiquitous and sponsors ran the show. By 1959, quiz show contestants were being spoon-fed answers to boost ratings. Public outrage and Congressional hearings led to network-generated programming and a clear demarcation between the shows and the ads.

Now, sponsors are back in the driver's seat -- developing concepts, overseeing rough cuts and inputting dialogue and plot points. In reality television, ad copy often passes as "real" conversation. For example, according to the WGA, when contestants on America's Next Top Model reacted skeptically to a runway fashion show staged at Kmart, they were called back to overdub pro-Kmart remarks.

Networks may carp about the slippery slope of censorship. Yet they are auctioning off artistic control faster than you can say "plugola." According to Nielsen, the top ten programs on broadcast TV last year had nearly 26,000 product placements. Cable's top ten shows had six times more -- 163,000 placements. This year American Idol had more than 14 minutes of branded content per episode, not counting the commercials.

Congressmen are still fuming over clips they were shown from two episodes of Seventh Heaven, which shamelessly promoted Oreos cookies. In a parallel case, writers on the family drama American Dreams claim they had to write and rewrite an episode to give Oreos a more prominent role.

These "program-length infomercials" aired during a national epidemic of diabetes and obesity, when food companies were under scrutiny for their marketing practices. Even if consumers were informed that "promotional consideration" was provided, they did not know the depth of the scripting, nor which parts of the plot were doctored to persuade. In fact, research suggests that when people are immersed in a story, they are less likely to evaluate persuasive content -- an enticing prospect for Madison Avenue.

In Europe, embedded advertising is a hot issue. But here, the ethics and social costs are rarely discussed. Integration deals are reported as business news. We get stats claiming that consumers prefer embedded ads (over more commercials), that teens like product placement (it reminds them of their ad-saturated reality) and that product placement isn't very lucrative (then why do it?) Behind all this is the droning apologetic: "TV networks are facing economic upheaval caused by ad-zapping technology and fragmenting markets..."

The "TiVo defense" does not explain why branded products are proliferating in movies, videogames, novels, songs, and even comic books. And challenging economic conditions do not justify a takeover of the public airwaves, or the unethical doctoring of creative content. By that logic, we would allow the ailing airline industry to scrap safety requirements and the steel industry to sell faulty girders.

As U.S. banks crumble under bad debt that could have been prevented by prudent governance, the anti-regulatory spin from media magpies has a sour ring. America would be wise to consider the real slippery slope: the risk to society, and especially youth, when marketers write our stories.