FCC Chair Receives Our Coalition Letter on Product Placement

fcc logoSept. 24, 2009 Shaping Youth is part of this coalition (15pp pdf here) joining over 50 signatories on “FCC Docket 08-90.”

As a nonpartisan, non-censorship, nonprofit recall I support two key coalitions impacting children, the other being eco-literacy, NCLI. You can get a glimpse of my reasoning here, but I’ll focus fully on “‘why this is important” deconstructing the docket in full soon.

Meanwhile, for skimmer readers and the Twitter 140 character concise crew following @ShapingYouth, or the hashtag #FCC here’s a cheat sheet on the key points. The primary focus is disclosure and ethics asking for four reasonable rule changes:

1.) Clear and effective disclosures 2.) Extension of the rules to cable and satellite networks 3.) A ban on product placement in shows for children under twelve. 4.) Rigorous enforcement to curb stealth, embedded ads.

That’s it in a nutshell. Here’s the full release to get it in your hands fast; analysis to follow soon…

Coalition to FCC:

Take ACTION on TV Product Placement

September 24, 2009 – for immediate release

“FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski received strong message today from 50 health, media and child advocacy organizations and professionals, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Common Sense Media, the Consumer’s Union, FAIR, Free Press, the National Institute on Media and the Family, Public Citizen: take action on TV product placement.

The coalition letter follows industry reports of increasing proliferation of product placement (branded props) and product integration (scripted ads woven into the plotline) since the FCC conducted a proceeding on the matter last fall. Advertising Age says sponsors are becoming “more aggressive” in their demands for “deeper” and “more intrusive” product integrations, and networks are more willing to comply.

“People notice products and brands in TV shows, but they may not realize that advertisers are scripting dialogue, story plot points and even whole episodes to influence consumer attitudes and behavior,” says Josh Golin, Associate Director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), a coalition group.

Networks and producers are slyly selling off program minutes – in other words, letting sponsors write the script. The messages don’t just push products and brands, they inculcate sponsor-driven values and lifestyles using familiar characters as shills.

Citing embedded junk food ads, casino promotions, pharmaceutical drug mentions (that don’t mention drug side effects) and the recent influx of firearms in TV programs, the coalition warns that companies trying to thwart ad regulations, industry codes of conduct, parental guidance or public accountability should not get a free pass once they cross the line into creative content.

The H&K UMP Submachine Gun used to kill a U.S. senator in the Fox action drama 24, for example, was a spot-on plug that has even gun enthusiasts wondering if H & K paid to advertise weapons on television. Entertainment Weekly has called it “ Hollywood ’s dirtiest little secret” that guns get product placement.

If so, say the watchdogs, the public has a right to know about it. And children under 12 must be protected from this covert form of marketing.

In an attachment to the letter, the coalition documents growing disregard for public health and broadcasting ethics in an industry that has embraced ‘payola’ as a business model: The teen drama One Tree Hill was crammed with 2,575 product placements in 2008 (fifty per week on average).

Coke pays an estimated $26 million to penetrate 60% of the running time on American Idol – including Coke-red walls, couches shaped like its bottles, and verbal plugs, according to Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Las Vegas casinos waged a “product placement war” on primetime TV last year, but to viewers it looked like background scenery.

Former Playboy playmate Kendra Wilkinson negotiated a marketing relationship with Dave & Buster’s sports bar chain, then featured the brand in her signature cable reality show“I’m doing a poster shoot for Dave and Buster’s and I’m so excited…I’m obsessed with Dave and Buster’s and I don’t know how they’re going to get me to calm down and pose…”

“Children who are trying to find their place in the world and have not yet developed the cognitive ability to discern persuasive intent, are particularly vulnerable to these influences and need the protection afforded by FCC disclosure and child protection rules,” says Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, a coalition signatory, and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. (@cmch_boston on Twitter)

Nielsen reports that product placements in the top ten shows on broadcast networks rose from 25,950 to 29,823 in 2008.

Measured another way, TNS Media Intelligence reports that in the first half of 2009, the time consumed by in-show branded appearances rose 19% over 2008 levels.

When you add the commercials, “advertising clutter” dominated 40% of primetime programming on broadcast networks, and the saturation is far greater on cable.

The advertising and television industries plead financial necessity, complaining that viewers can “zap” commercials using DVR technology.

Yet recent data from Nielsen suggests that people time-shift only 5.4% as often as they watch shows in real time.

“The claim that ‘TiVo made us do it’ doesn’t hold water,” says Nancy Marsden, a former teacher who coordinated the coalition effort. “If TiVo is the cause, then what would explain the rampant product placement in videogames, teen novels and even comic books?”

A more accurate explanation is that product placement is lucrative and it works better than commercials in a world where people are bombarded with ads everywhere they turn.

“Decades of research have demonstrated the power of embedded advertising, both because its marketing is covert, thus less likely to trigger critical viewing, and because it implies an endorsement of the product by attractive media role models,” says Dr. Rich.

Indeed, Martin Lindstrom scanned the brains of hundreds of people while they watched episodes of American Idol. He found that Coke’s embedded branding cues penetrate the emotional brain and long-term memory far better than traditional commercials because people don’t process them as advertising.

The FCC’s proposed rule changes reflect a longstanding legal and ethical principle: People have a right to know when they are being advertised to, and by whom.

Urging Chairman Genachowski to take action, the coalition is calling for:

1)      Clear and effective disclosures.

2)      Extension of the rules to cable and satellite networks.

3)      A ban on product placement in shows for children under 12.

4)      Rigorous enforcement to curb stealth, embedded ads.


Networks used to be the gatekeepers, says former TV screenwriter and producer Korby Siamis (The Cosby Show, Murphy Brown).

On occasions that we used a product name, we would receive notices from the network Standards and Practices department,” she told the FCC during the inquiry and rulemaking proceeding last fall. “Under no circumstances would a product be named if the network knew that there was a commercial for that product scheduled during the airing of the episode.”

Today, the one-two punch is common practice – an embedded plug, followed by a traditional commercial.

“The concept that we would ever have been expected to include product names or usage in our writing would have been beyond ludicrous,” recalls Ms. Siamis, who is a signatory on the letter.

Coalition groups such as FAIR and Free Press are particularly concerned about the penetration of advertising in news and informational programming.

“Product placements and other forms of stealth ads are increasingly showing up in newscasts,” said Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, a coalition signatory.

“With ‘fake news’ segments scripted and produced by public relations firms, the line between editorial and advertising content is disappearing.  Strong disclosure standards must be established and enforced, so that viewers know what’s real reporting and what’s paid-for spin.”



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