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From creep to floodgate: Product placement and fake news

SHOWCASE | January 12, 2007

Panelists at Media Reform convention ridicule actors giving their all for Oreos, Crest, etc.; Donald Trump’s show was said to be the worst. And then there’s those corporate- or government-produced VNRs.

By John Branston

MEMPHISProduct placement is running rampant on television, and the people who write the programs aren’t happy about it.

“Over the past two years, creep has become floodgate,” says Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America and a former joke writer for Johnny Carson and The Simpsons.

Verrone’s panel at the National Conference for Media Reform was one of the most entertaining of an otherwise dead-serious session on product placement and its evil twin, the video news release, or VNR. He showed clips of actors giving it their all for Oreos, Olay, Crest, Scope, and Wendy’s in contrived plots of sitcoms and reality shows.

[Audio feeds of the panel sessions and video of some of the main speakers are put on the Freepress’s conference Web site as they become available. Other Nieman Watchdog stories on the conference can be found here.]

“Reality shows are the worst,” with The Apprentice (Donald Trump) at the top, or bottom as it were, of the list. “I think the viewership votes with its feet. That killed The Apprentice.”

“Seinfeld’s” Junior Mint episode was, to Verrone, the rare example of a product placement that worked as part of the show, but in general he and his fellow writers would like to see them disclosed if not disappear.

“Shows have to get ratings, and shows on the bubble are much more subjected to this thing,” he said. “People are being advertised to when they expect to be entertained.”

And when they think they’re watching hard news. Diane Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy says the corporate-produced video news release has found its way into hundreds of news casts monitored by the center, including large markets such as New York and Boston. They’re usually aired without disclosure during news casts on, say, the impact or non-impact of global warming on hurricane frequency.

“The solution must be at the policy level,” she says. “There is next to no chance the television station is going to tell you where they came from.”

Panelist Granville Williams of the British-based Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom proposed the UK model of simply banning product placement rather than educating viewers, especially young ones, to spot it. Education in “media literacy” can simply be a “Trojan horse” to get more advertising in schools.


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