Product’s Place Is on the Set
New York Times
July 22, 2008
Name-brand products make regular appearances on
television shows, where they are typically written into
a drama, comedy or reality program. “American Idol”
viewers, for example, have come to expect to see a Coke
cup in front of Simon Cowell as he dresses down
But TV news?
In recent weeks, anchors on the Fox affiliate in Las
Vegas, KVVU, sit with cups of McDonald’s iced coffee on
their desks during the news-and-lifestyle portion of
their morning show. The anchors rarely touch the cups.
Executives at the station, one of 12 owned by Meredith
Corporation, say the six-month promotion is meant to
shore up advertising revenue and, as they told the news
staff, will not influence content.
“There was a healthy dose of skepticism, and I’m pleased
there was — it means they’re being journalists,” said
Adam P. Bradshaw, news director of KVVU. The product
placement was first reported Monday in The Las Vegas
The arrangement does raise questions about potential
conflicts between the intended message and news content.
The ad agency that arranged the promotion said the
coffee cups would most likely be whisked away if KVVU
chooses to report a negative story about McDonald’s.
“If there were a story going up, let’s say, God forbid,
about a McDonald’s food illness outbreak or something
negative about McDonald’s, I would expect that the
station would absolutely give us the opportunity to pull
our product off set,” said Brent Williams, account
supervisor at Karsh/Hagan, the advertising agency that
arranged the deal between McDonald’s and KVVU.
If that did not happen, “it might lead to the
termination of an agreement” to appear on the show, he
said. KVVU, for its part, said it would continue to
report truthfully and honestly about McDonald’s. Mr.
Bradshaw said the station would remove the cups, just as
it would remove spot advertising from a newscast for any
advertiser who is the subject of a negative report.
With the economy in rough shape and advertisers
funneling more dollars to the Internet, the television
industry is trying to increase its revenues. Neither the
agency nor KVVU would reveal the price of the six-month
Other stations owned by Meredith — including WFSB, the
CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn., and WGCL, the CBS
affiliate in Atlanta — are also accepting product
placements on their morning shows.
Arrangements like these are anathema to journalists and
media watchdogs. And the broader issue of product
placements is under scrutiny at the Federal
Communications Commission, which is weighing tighter
rules for how sponsorships on TV shows are disclosed.
“Expanding this into news raises very troubling
questions,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president for
the Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy group.
“Viewers, when they see news programs, are expecting to
see things that reflect the marriage of the things
reported, and do not look in the credits of these
programs to see if there’s some small disclaimer that
people are being paid for product placements.”
The three major network morning shows, ABC’s “Good
Morning America,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” and NBC’s
“Today” do not accept fees in exchange for product
placement, representatives of the shows said Monday.
“It is against CBS News’s standards to accept money in
exchange for product placement on any broadcast, and we
do not do so,” Kelli Halyard, a CBS spokeswoman, wrote
in an e-mail message.
Paul Karpowicz, the president of Meredith Broadcasting
Group, said that product placements on his stations were
limited to morning news shows.
“If something happens and we have to report something
about McDonald’s, we’ll report it,” said Mr. Bradshaw of
KVVU. “I would not put product placement into any of my
traditional hard newscasts. I would not run it in my 5
p.m. or my 10 p.m.”
He said he was not allowing the McDonald’s cups on the
so-called straight news portion of the morning report,
which is before 7 a.m., but on a lighter,
news-and-lifestyle show that goes from 7 to 9 a.m.
McDonald’s has also placed products on morning news
shows on WFLD in Chicago, which is owned and operated by
Fox; on KCPQ in Seattle, a Fox affiliate owned by the
Tribune Company; and on Univision 41 in New York City,
said Danya Proud, a McDonald’s spokeswoman.
Ms. Proud said the promotion was regional rather than
national in scope. “This is a way for us to allow our
customers to discover our products,” she said. Morning
shows, she said, are a natural place to promote coffee
But what if the reporters sitting in front of McDonald’s
products are doing segments about, say, gang violence or
outbreaks of tainted food?
“That’s something we’ve taken into account,” said Mr.
Williams of Karsh/Hagan, part of the TBWA Worldwide unit
of Omnicom Group.
“I’m kind of relying, my client is relying, on just the
inner workings of that station,” he said. “Not that
editorial would ever give a heads-up to sales or be
expected to give a heads-up to sales, but these are
professionals. They do realize that some businesses’
brands, some businesses’ reputations, could be at stake
in terms of how commerce and news are interacting here.”
In 2005, the F.C.C. issued a reminder to broadcasters
that they must disclose when they use certain video news
releases provided by corporations. The inquiry that the
agency opened in June is focused on entertainment shows
rather than news, but could easily be broadened.
In June, the Writers Guild of America West sent a letter
to the F.C.C. supporting real-time disclosure of product
placement and asking for a ban on video news releases on
local broadcast television.
“This practice is unbelievably deceptive and is an
attempt to trick the viewer to think that a paid
advertisement is actually news,” the group’s president,
Patric M. Verrone, wrote.
Herbert Jack Rotfeld, a professor of marketing at Auburn
University, said that product placement deals on news
shows could backfire for both sides. “In the end, they
just make the audiences even more skeptical of
everything.” he said.