08/08/2008 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stealth Advertising: The Dangerous Sound of Media Silence

There's nothing philosophical about it. When a press release from 23 watchdog groups falls in the media "forest" and nobody hears it, as far as the public is concerned, it doesn't exist.

The same is true when advertising executives lobby FCC officials in closed door meetings that, from the public's point of view, don't make a sound, let alone a sound bite.

At issue: stealth TV advertising that makes Vance Packard's "hidden persuaders" look tame. Hollywood calls it "product integration." Madison Avenue calls it "branded entertainment." Wall Street calls it money in the bank. But who's going to call it what it really is?


Today, Big Brother corporations are -- often secretly -- paying to doctor TV scripts, input dialogue and control production. They have crossed the line from commercial "spots" into the programs themselves -- often so seamlessly that they bypass the viewer's ad radar. In a disturbing development, advertising agencies are creating their own programs with characters as shills, and PRODUCTS as the subtle heroes of plots that are scripted to persuade.

The goal is not just to sell products, but to inculcate attitudes and values that trigger targeted behavior.

The problem cannot be overstated. Directly ahead, we face a hostile takeover of the public airwaves -- not to mention the invasion of movies, youth novels, videogames, music videos, songs and even comic books. Giddy marketers are gushing about the prospect of controlling media, instead of just sponsoring it. (But have you heard any discussion of the social implications?)

Right now, there is only one law standing in their way: the FCC's longstanding "sponsorship identification rule." Radio and television networks must disclose the sources of all paid messages that are broadcast on the public airwaves.

Let's be clear: this law does not ban embedded advertising. It ensures that the public is INFORMED.

But as you may have noticed, the law needs to be strengthened. Currently, disclosures are buried in the end credits on a split screen, often in tiny print that zips by at light speed. The wording ("promotional consideration provided by") does not tell the consumer that advertisers have paid to doctor the plot.

In September, 2007, facing mounting consumer complaints, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin (a Republican), announced that viewers have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something. He pledged to initiate a regulatory procedure. Congressmen Edward Markey and Henry Waxman (Democrats) applauded the move in a letter documenting what appear to be unfair and deceptive marketing practices.

It was the sound of one hand clapping.

The same under-reporting has effectively silenced complaints from the Writer's Guild of America (the writers are being forced to doctor scripts against their will). And I'm sure you didn't hear anything on Fox or CNN about the anti-regulatory lobbying by advertising trade groups, ANA, AAAA, and AAF -- or their meeting with one of the FCC Commissioners.

On June 26, 2008, the FCC adopted a watered-down procedure on embedded advertising. Immediately, major newspapers (beholden to their advertisers) ran cocky editorials, pooh-poohing the need for disclosure. The Big Media spin is accelerating.

As for the growing concerns expressed by public health and child advocacy groups, watchdogs protecting democratic media practices, parents and other concerned citizens...

The chilling sound of media silence.