Skipping The Ads On TV? Get Ready For The Shows That Are The Ads

Oct 4, 2011
Originally published on October 5, 2011 4:28 pm

You know regular product placement, right? Top Chef and its plugs for frozen meals and Gladware, cars being name-checked by action stars speeding away in them, and — of course — the carbonation-off currently taking place between American Idol (COKE! COKE! COKE!) and The X Factor (PEPSI! PEPSI! PEPSI!). But as Elizabeth Blair reports on Wednesday's Morning Edition, you haven't seen anything yet.

Consider My Yard Goes Disney. No, seriously. Consider it. As much as you may hesitate. It's a show where Disney theme park designers visit civilian backyards to make them over. This ratcheting up of in-show advertising to the point where the show itself announces that it is all about taking your normal existence and branding it as you would if you lived at a for-profit theme park, while it may seem bizarre, is an outgrowth of advertisers' increasing desperation to get you to see what they're trying to show you. As Advertising Age writer Brian Steinberg explains it, the more you have the ability to avoid conventional ads, the more advertisers begin seeking other strategies. (Cue spine-tingling music.)

In one episode, the designers give the family a Mickey-shaped pool.

And don't think it's just Disney. Elizabeth Blair also looks at a Cooking Channel show called From the Kitchens Of, which shows you the test kitchens of companies like Pillsbury and Hillshire Farms. The companies that are featured both share in the costs of making the show and agree to buy advertising. And almost two-thirds of the audience doesn't consider it to be an ad, even though ... you know, it basically is one.

Consider this ad/segment from the "From The Kitchens Of Jimmy Dean" episode, in which the host prepares apple-sausage pancakes. All the ingredients are generic and not branded, with the exception of not only Jimmy Dean sausage, but the "star ingredient," Jimmy Dean Hearty Sausage Crumbles, which are pre-cooked, bagged sausage bits. The show is careful to point out their resealable bag (handy!) and pre-seasoning (so easy!).

Or this one, in which the host teaches you to bread your own cheese sticks with crushed Town House crackers. ("From The Kitchens Of Town House Crackers," naturally.)

It's not just food companies, either: On one episode, the sponsor is Kenmore, and you learn to make angel food cake from a mix in the microwave, using a setup that includes paper cups, paper towels, and muffin wrappers. This is a great advance for people who find making cake from a mix in the oven too burdensome.

If you suspect that not everybody is enthused about this development, you're right. Blair talks to Robert Weissman of the advocacy group Public Citizen, who has long argued that if you're paying for any kind of placement of your product in a show, there should be explicit disclosure that it's a piece of advertising. Weissman is particularly irked by undisclosed advertising to children.

And if you don't like advertising aimed at children, you're probably among the people disconcerted by the appearance last year of The Hub, a channel born of a collaboration between Discovery Communications and Hasbro. If you guessed that The Hub includes a significant number of shows that happen to be about Hasbro toys — like My Little Pony, to name one particularly ubiquitous example — you guessed correctly. Weissman's response? Well, it's not enthusiastic. In fact, he calls the whole thing "nefarious."

The CEO of The Hub, Margaret Loesch, told Blair in an email that these shows are entertainment for kids, and not necessarily different from the rest of successful children's television, nearly all of which has some kind of merchandising tagged to it.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The line between advertising and TV programming, these days, is blurry to say the least. Nobody is surprised to see brands blatantly advertised in sitcoms, dramas, reality shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "BONES")

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "GLEE")

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PROJECT RUNWAY")

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nothing subtle about the placement of those products. They're clips from the TV shows "Project Runway," "Glee" and "Bones." It turns out that kind of embedded name-dropping isn't enough for advertisers. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The name of this show alone got our attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY YARD GOES DISNEY")

BLAIR: "My Yard Goes Disney." In this reality show, designers from Disney theme parks do things to people's yards that make them really popular with their kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY YARD GOES DISNEY")

BLAIR: So how did we get to the point where an entire TV series would shamelessly promote one corporation? Brian Steinberg, a writer for Advertising Age, says partly because people just aren't watching commercials anymore.

BRIAN STEINBERG: People are tired of seeing commercials. They see an awful lot of them. And now they have the means to avoid them with DVRs, when you're watching on the web or iTunes. They know how to get rid of them, or avoid them, or zap them out of existence.

BLAIR: So advertisers are looking for other ways to get their names out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

BLAIR: On The Cooking Channel there's a show that takes viewers inside the test kitchens of major food companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

BLAIR: "From The Kitchens Of" was developed in partnership with companies like Pillsbury and Hillshire Farms, says Michael Smith, The Cooking Channel's general manager.

MICHAEL SMITH: The companies have always recognized that one of the best ways to move the needle with consumers is to show your products in a context where they're really engaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

BLAIR: Smith says the advertisers share in the production costs. On top of that, they agree to buy advertising spots across The Cooking Channel's schedule. He says in focus groups, "From The Kitchens Of" gets high marks.

SMITH: Only about a third of the people perceive the show as being an advertiser-sponsored or advertiser-paid-for show. Sixty-five percent thought it was a regular cooking show.

ROBERT WEISSMANN: The basic rules are you can't deceive consumers and consumers must know when they're being advertised to.

BLAIR: Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group. He's been arguing for years that, when a company pays to have their products embedded into regular programming, there needs to be some kind of visible disclosure when those products appear. He says it's really troubling when shows that seem to be disguised as advertisements target children.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY LITTLE PONY")

BLAIR: This is a whole TV series built around My Little Pony toys. The series is on the new cable channel The Hub. The Hub is a joint venture between Hasbro, the makers of My Little Pony, and Discovery Communications. Many of the shows are built around Hasbro products, like GI Joe and Scrabble. Weissman thinks the whole business is nefarious.

WEISSMANN: Because kids are much more vulnerable to advertisng and marketing tricks. Young children, particularly, don't know that they're even being advertised to at all.

BLAIR: The Hub's CEO, Margaret Loesch, was unavailable to record an interview, but in an email, insists that these shows are entertainment, not commercials, and points out that virtually every successful children's TV show has had toys or merchandise attached to it.

Meantime, The Cooking Channel is gearing up for another season of "From the Kitchens Of." Michael Smith says all of the advertisers - from Kellogg's to Kenmore - are coming back.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.