Thursday, August 25, 2005

Product Placement In Public Radio?

A few years ago, Ira Glass created some classic on-air fundraising spots based on the idea that public radio could make money from product placement. The joke was that public radio could earn more income by having its news people slip mentions of products or services into their stories and analyses.

As always, Ira's bits were funny and effective. Lots of listeners pledged. A few, not getting the joke, called stations to express their outrage over the idea that public radio would even think about product placements. It was so "not" public radio.

Or is it?

One of the new fundraising practices in public radio is selling sweepstakes opportunities to potential underwriters. The package includes the usual sweepstakes stuff -- lots of on-air promotion, a direct mail piece that could just as easily be from Publisher's Clearing House, web banner ads, and point-of-purchase entry boxes.

What makes all of this new are "Reporter Perspective" pieces that feature the sweepstakes prize.

An example of this is WBUR's Mercedes giveaway. A WBUR news producer visits the dealership, test drives the car, and along with the Mercedes salesman give the car glowing reviews.

It's everything an underwriting acknowledgement cannot be. That's the "value-added" for the underwriter. It is a blatant effort to skirt the rules about qualitative language.

In that way, these Reporter Perspectives are not really product placement, even though the sponsor paid to participate, because there is nothing subtle about them. They are an obvious sales pitch for the car. They are not exactly infomericals either.

They are somewhere between those two sales tactics and those faux news pieces put out by businesses and the White House. They are produced by news people, introduced like a news piece, and run in a news program. Each is designed to sound like a public radio story -- execpt it is pure PR.

Those advocating this type of fundraising position it as progressive and "new school." But there is nothing new about blurring the line between sales and news. Our listeners can find that just about anywhere else on the radio, TV, or the Internet. They come to public radio because they want to know that the people writing, reporting, and delivering the news aren't trying to sell them something. Sales tactics such as this undermine that trust.

To see and hear for yourself:

UPDATE: Monday 8/29/2005 -- WBUR password-protected these and all other links to its "Promotions" page this afternoon. Promotions, in this instance, refers to opportunities for businesses to market their name, products, or services to station listeners during pledge drives.

The Mercedes Benz promotion is here. Click on Audio, then listen to the four Reporter Perspectives. If you get a chance, go to the Land Rover promotion and click on Audio where you will learn that the station aired the Reporter Perspectives 35 times over 9 days.


Blogger Mike said...

For whatever reason, I'm not encountering any password protection. For the record, I'm using Firefox 1.0.6 with Windows 2000.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

WBUR is hurting financially as of badly that they killed off their flagship show The Connection.

Add to the mix that WBUR has pledged (pun intended) to reduce their fundraisers from six to four annually, and to make them less intrusive (since each was really about five weeks long).

And, oh yes, corporate underwriting is way way way way WAY down from the heyday of the 1990's.

Add it all up and you've got a company that's cutting hard and deep just to get back into the black - and they've got a long way to go before they get there.

Viewed in that light, I can certainly understand why WBUR is trying innovative and perhaps less-than-ethical tactics to bring in some much needed cash.

However, a better question is: whaddaya gonna DO about it?

If you scream at WBUR to stop...or worse, file a compliant with the FCC for underwriting violations...all that does is further restrict WBUR's funding which means less cash to go towards reporting, staff, expenses, etc.

If you just shrug and let it risk letting a venerable institution shoot itself in the foot and lose a great deal of credibility in the ears of its listeners.

Decisions, decisions...

(P.S. I use Firefox 1.0.6 on WinXP and I got the password-protection on the promotions links)

10:24 AM  
Blogger Johnathan said...

Aren't public television stations doing the same thing when they have a televised auction?

They (often) include video clips and/or "value-laden" description with qualitative language of the items being given away that were "donated" by local businesses, some of whom are underwriters (and some of whom are not, at least, outside of the televised auction).

(I guess, it begs the question, would businesses donate these items if they were, say, for a silent auction at an event, and were *not* going to be featured on-air?)

OTOH, I can't blame them too much. Costs are increasing, and even PBS has turned to allowing commercials (on the new network "PBS Kids Sprout", of which PBS claims only to be a "partner brand").

I'd rather allow non-coms a very limited number of commercial minutes per hour, rather than have these "pseudo-ads" sprinkled throughout programming. Maybe 2 or 2.5 minutes would be okay?

9:48 PM  

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