Wall Street Journal
June 28, 2008
Hide the children: Commercial products are visible on
network television. That's the urgent message from a
clatch of public interest groups who wrote to the
Federal Communications Commission last week demanding an
end to "advertainment."
According to the signers of the letter to FCC Chairman
Kevin Martin – including the Campaign for a Commercial
Free Childhood, the Parents Television Council and
Public Citizen – the appearance of brands in sitcoms and
soap operas is bad for us and for the impressionable
minds of children. The media are "carrying messages that
would otherwise be criticized by the public or even
deemed illegal," the groups wrote.
So what are these nefarious products and messages
infecting the airwaves? Well, Oreos, to pick one
outrage. The chocolate sandwich snack has appeared in
sponsored plot points of two installments of "Everybody
Loves Raymond." According to the public interest scolds,
peddlers of junk food and alcohol are among the culprits
exploiting our airwaves.
Such suggestions are almost guaranteed to find a
receptive audience among politicians. The FCC's Mr.
Martin expressed concern last year over the increasingly
"subtle and sophisticated" ways of weaving commercial
messages into traditional programming. Congressmen Henry
Waxman and Ed Markey also profess to see product
placement as a manipulation of our "emotional
connection" to TV characters. This conspiratorial view
of advertising goes back to Vance Packard and the
"Hidden Persuaders," the book unmasking the supposed
media manipulation of the 1950s.
In reality, TV producers are trying to make programming
pay in an age when more and more viewers are TIVO-ing
through the commercials. Overall, product placement has
risen 13% on network TV in the past year, as advertisers
seek ways to get their products noticed without annoying
customers. A ban on product placement will increase the
incentive for broadcasters to offer more programming as
The FCC said this week it plans to consider new rules
that would require shows to more prominently notify
viewers of sponsored products in their plot points. But
where does it end? A lion's share of product appearances
has come on reality TV shows like "American Idol."
Professional sports, especially Nascar and your average
pro golfer, are wallpapered with endorsement logos.
Viewers already understand exactly what's going on when
a TV character flaunts a name brand – and that awareness
is the best defense against whatever "manipulation" is
One of the things at stake in this election is who will
run agencies like the FCC, which have enormous
discretionary power. In the 1970s, at the height of the
nanny state, these agencies were populated by meddlers
who harassed business and raised costs for consumers.
They're back on the march, and eager to tell you what's
good for you – whether you like it or not.
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