How “chill” can a newscast get before it’s just stone cold stupid?
As reported previously, under President and General Manager Richard Graziano and News Director Amy Waldman, WPIX-TV is placing increasing emphasis on enhancing its revenue stream by partnering with advertisers to produce so-called “native advertising” or “sponsored content.” This includes early morning “news” segments promoting liquor brands like Cavoda Vodka, Diplomático Rum, Four Roses Bourbon, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Casa Noble Tequila.
Such segments treat viewers as if they were stupid, but can viewing them actually lower your kids’ media IQ? And will there be a backlash against these brands when consumers realize they’re being scammed? Is there really a “National Bourbon Month,” and does anybody care other than the people trying to sell you bourbon? Aren’t commercials between news segments enough, or do we really need commercials disguised as news?
Here I provide an essential guide to native advertising and solutions for weary consumers — everything you need to know including a satire on PIX11 Morning News, and how to complain to the FTC or FCC about payola.
Native advertising is controversial because according to John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who’s now a professor of mass communication at Boston University, “What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising. The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?” (So says a Boston Globe article.) For a clever and funny look at native advertising, see writer-comedian John Oliver below:
Even adults might not notice they’re watching an ad when the sponsored content is camouflaged — worked seamlessly into the news broadcast, introduced as if it were real news, and uses the same on-air personalities. But children are especially vulnerable to such native advertising because they tend to be uncritical viewers. So peppering them with fake news segments in the early a.m. — segments where trusted news presenters are shown oohing and ahhing over cocktails made with hard liquor — is seen by critics as an underhanded way of promoting underage drinking — an analogue to the old Flintstones commercials pushing Winston cigarettes.
For a brief retrospective on the Flintstones and marketing, see “Yabba Dabba Cough!” in Advertising Age. Then compare this Winston ad with the following PIX11 News segments promoting numerous liquor brands:
If the drinks drunk by adults are too bitter for kids, why not ply them with extra sweet drinks for Halloween? The “Spooky Spirits” segment is particularly shameful — chock full of gimmicks meant to appeal to kid tastes: Ice cream, Dutch chocolate, Karo corn syrup (which kids are used to seeing Mom pour on waffles), blue food coloring, green ice cubes which light up, and a Cavoda Vodka bottle that blinks on and off. (“It’s a premium vodka for under $40. That’s a great gift to give somebody, by the way.”) They mercifully passed on the performing clown who juggles shotglasses, and the Power Rangers swizzle sticks. Disclosure? They passed on that too.
Children in low-income families receive much of their education and acculturation through unsupervised television viewing. The TV becomes a surrogate parent, so it’s troubling when PIX11 News treats every familiar holiday (and a few novel ones) as an occasion to drink hard liquor — much like a bad daddy in need of a good 12-step program. Their early morning segments covertly sponsored by liquor manufacturers aren’t merely about mixing cocktails, but about establishing a strong connection between holiday-making and alcohol consumption, turning “finding the right drink” into a mandatory ritual for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Earth Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and (of course) National Margarita Day. (Did you remember to send a card?)
Other excuses for running sponsored content promoting booze include the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Cup, the Belmont Stakes, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and a new season of Game of Thrones. (Ralph Kramden’s Birthday was debated but tabled.)
The messages such native advertising sends to kids are that drinking is hip, drinking is cool, drinking is fun, drinking is popular, drinking is newsworthy, drinking is patriotic, and drinking is indispensable to social bonding. The latter message could hardly be more explicit than when perennial guest Nicole Young of Sipteaze.com pours the Punzoné Vodka (“Organic! Delicious!”), while anchor Sukanya “Suki” Krishnan explains:
You know what’s so great when you have people come over your house, the first thing you want is to have a little beautiful drink when somebody’s entertaining in their house. And that’s the first thing my mother always taught me: Offer a drink!
— “‘Shocktails’ perfect for toasting on Halloween,” PIX11 News, October 30, 2014.
Neither grammarian nor teetotaler, Krishnan has been voted the news anchor most likely to introduce your kids to a bomb-biggity cocktail that’s really chill. These native ads (often featuring Krishnan) are like mini tutorials teaching your kids how to drink and why to drink, powered by the caffeinated enthusiasm of well-paid media personalities who act as role models for dipsomania. “I love my Martinis!” Krishnan exclaims in one early morning segment, and “Who really has just one glass of wine, right? You know we all sometimes go above the recommended serving because we need to.” Such alcoholic reasoning is endemic among PIX11 News anchors, as on “National Drink Wine Day,” another obscure marketing holiday also known as ”Suck Up To The Liquor Industry Day”:
Nevertheless, it’s a long-standing broadcast industry policy that on-air personalities don’t actually consume the alcoholic beverages they’re shown deeply inhaling and pronouncing delightful. But PIX11 News gets around that prohibition by having a camera person or even the director of the broadcast sample such beverages:
From PIX11 Morning News, “Shocktails For Halloween” (10/30/2014): Sukanya Krishnan hands broadcast director “Bob” a cocktail made with Punzoné Vodka to drink on cam, and jokes about him getting tipsy/passing out. It’s not yet 9 a.m.
PIX11 News and Sukanya Krishnan are no strangers to payola. The NY Daily News reports that in 2009 they were caught promoting restaurants in segments titled “Dining PIX.” Viewers weren’t told that in order be featured, each restaurant had to pay $10,000 or more in gift certificates under the table. This violates FCC payola rules.
Payola isn’t always paid directly or in cash, but may be funnelled through agencies and use in-kind payment such as gift certificates. Imagine you’re a company with 100 employees who each expect a Christmas bonus. If you give them a $100 gift certificate in lieu of cash, that saves you $10,000. The company providing the gift certificates in exchange for on-air promotion would probably not record the details in their books, so uncovering the crime would require careful sleuthing.
Such shenanigans have been going on forever, and even formed the basis for a 1978 Columbo episode where a restaurateur is murdered because he threatens to blow the whistle on a payola scheme in which the “Restaurant Developers Association” pays a prominent TV personality for good restaurant reviews. He in turn deposits the checks in a dummy account registered to “Irene de Milo” (not to be confused with Intravenus de Milo).
See this excellent Washington Post article by Paul Farhi detailing common industry practices, or hear him interviewed on WNYC radio. What’s changed since Farhi wrote in 2011 is that under the new rubric of “native advertising,” broadcasters are demanding a bigger slice of the pie in exchange for playing a bigger role in the deception.
When PIX11 News introduces someone as a “lifestyle expert” or “trend forecaster,” that’s typically code for an actor hired by a marketing firm to promote a selection of products which the manufacturers paid to have promoted. Where the industry policy toward such paid shills was once “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s now more like “Come on in and let’s cook the news together. You brought your checkbook, right?”
Where you see a news anchor launch into Suki Krishnan mode, exclaiming “Oh my God, I LUVVV it!” about a drink made from Thunderbird and lime Jell-O (garnished with McDonald’s garlic fries), you can confidently assume that someone’s palm is shiny with grease. It’s not always clear whose.
PIX11’s “Spooky Spirits” segment should really be dubbed “Hocus Pocus, Lose Our Focus” (on news). There’s no discussion of problems like alcoholism or drunk driving — but then there wouldn’t be in an ad designed to ensure that the next generation is culturally acclimated to booze. Children of alcoholics might be able to add a jigger of insight to the mix:
A big thank you to Katherine for posting that brave video, which I can definitely relate to. She’s not against drinking, but she is against alcoholic parenting, just as I’m against deceptive marketing of alcohol, especially to children.
Children and marketing
We’ve known since the 1960s that TV advertising is an intense and highly targeted form of propaganda. Its effectiveness may increase exponentially when we don’t know that what we’re watching is an ad. Sponsored content inserted covertly into news broadcasts is a form of “ambush marketing” which may fail to trigger our marketing defenses. We may know in theory that advertisers lie, yet we may trust news presenters and TV personalities not to harm us. Longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek now hawks insurance for Colonial Penn. Such “guaranteed life insurance” (which actually provides close to zero benefits for a $9.95 monthly payment) is viewed by some as preying on the elderly.
Children have relatively few defenses against marketing. I can remember as a child wanting the toys I saw on TV without any insight as to why I wanted them, or how I came to associate owning a particular piece of plastic with entering a world of unending fun. It didn’t cross my five-year-old mind that the reason the kids in the toy commercial looked so happy was that the commercial was designed to manipulate me psychologically. This little ditty from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory makes the serious point that excessive consumerism leads to personal selfishness:
Children want grownup things, and PIX11 News segments aired during cartoon time often begin by mixing some alcoholic cocktails for adults, finishing up with a non-alcoholic or “mocktail” version for kids. Contrary to what’s claimed, this is not at all “kid friendly.” The mocktails are stigmatized with the “kid” label and explicitly described as “less fun.” They’re nevertheless meant to introduce kids to drinking — just as candy cigarettes are meant to get them used to holding cigarettes and regarding them as items to be purchased and consumed. See “Study Links Candy Cigarettes to Smoking,” where Robin Lloyd writes:
Candy cigarettes predispose children who play with them to smoke the real things later, new research concludes.
The look-alikes made of candy or gum are marketing and advertising tools that desensitize kids and open them more so to the idea of smoking later on, says study leader Jonathan Klein of the University of Rochester. Candy cigarettes cannot be considered simply as candy, Klein said.
“The continued existence of these products helps promote smoking as a culturally or socially acceptable activity,” Klein said in a prepared statement.
An article appearing on nbc.com notes that “a 2000 study in the British Medical Journal concluded that the tobacco industry worked with the candy industry to design candy products ‘that would effectively promote smoking to children.’ … ‘Candy cigarettes are like training wheels for smoking. Teaching this behavior to kids is ridiculous,’ said Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.” The NBC article includes this graphic of 4-year old Destiny pretending to take a drag on a cigarette for the hit reality show Toddlers and Tiaras:
Opponents of underage drinking have long complained that wine coolers (which are sweet and fruity) marketed to youngsters are a gateway to hard liquor. In that vein, it’s remarkable how many of the cocktails mixed on PIX11 News during cartoon time include sugar syrup, fruit juice, or artificial coloring to make them more appealing to kid tastes.
Perhaps these two lines of fictional dialogue would help illustrate the problem:
Husband: What’s wrong with our boy? Why he ain’t been to school in three weeks?
Wife: That poor boy’s f-cked up again on Riunite Lambrusco and black cherry soda. Been drinkin’ it faster than he can piss it out.
Deeper implications of native advertising
There’s a big difference between seeking after truth and pandering to commercial interests. At the more responsible media outlets, people take news-gathering seriously as a sacred obligation, not something to be watered down. In that serious view, neither government nor industry should be allowed to dictate the content of stories. Yet, looking back on history, we can question whether the supposed “facts” we were fed about wars in Vietnam and Iraq were mostly truthful, or mostly lies. A sad fact of human nature (and the institutions created by us humans) is that we often honour high principles in the breach. Want to have an unjust war? You might need to pay some people off. Some journalists might be persuaded to substitute lies for truth.
British poet Adrian Mitchell first read his antiwar poem “To Whom It May Concern” (a.k.a. “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam”) in Trafalgar Square in 1964, but has continued to update it as events warranted. The December 2008 version published by the Guardian includes these snippets:
I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out
You take the human being, and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about –
Tell me lies Mr Bush
Tell me lies Mr Blairbrowncameron
Tell me lies about Vietnam
Mitchell captures the sense of incredulity which many people feel in the face of genocide: surely they can’t really be napalming villages with women and children inside; they must only be dropping peppermints and daisy-chains. He likewise captures the sense that a great many people must be paid off in material goods so as not to hear the screaming when a genocide occurs, and not to protest. Chain my tongue with whiskey and fill my ears with silver, indeed!
In this broader context, is a news report that the war of the day is going well and was thoroughly justified based on truth, or is it an advertisement promoting the interests of politicians, generals and arms manufacturers? You decide.
Blurring the lines between news and advertising is dangerous for any number of reasons, not least because it ultimately blurs our own sense of ethics. A prostitute is someone who will perform any sexual act as long as he or she is paid. When some so-called journalists will promote any product or cause as long as they are paid, how are they distinguishable? When everything is up for sale, what happens to truth, and how will we locate truth when we really need it? If we listen to lies all day long, we will gradually become inured to them, and to the view that truth doesn’t matter. It’s all about marketing, of a drink or a drug or a war.
Increasingly, the purpose of mainstream media is not to help us locate truth, but to persuade us to consume the products produced by advertisers. This is true not only in the narrow sense that we are shown particular short, targeted advertisements, but also in the broader sense that mainstream media tend to push a particular platform for living: a platform based primarily on production and consumption, but not based on insight. Indeed, insight is the enemy, because insight would cause us to wonder whether endless production and consumption is really the key to human happiness, or whether something more is needed. Insight would have us temper the happy talk of PIX11 News anchors as they tout the social benefits of drinking with remembrance of the faces on skid row — faces of people whose lives were destroyed by drinking.
As for that platform of consumerism, it might be described as a “Design For Dreaming” — the name of a short film produced by General Motors in 1956. The characters seem thoroughly drunk or tripped-out on consumerism. They’re not buying a car or oven so much as a fantasy of future happiness. But as the MST3k crew deftly observes: “Future not available in Africa, India, or Central/South America.”
Sacrificing balance for commercial interests
Good reporting is supposed to be balanced, but “sponsored content” is anything but. When the same PIX11 News personalities who euphorically push booze to kids start telling us what to think about politics or religion, the obvious question is “Who’s paying them to sell this particular point of view?” There’s an inherent conflict when folks who are in the tank for narrow business interests also push a world view which is politically reactionary and contemptuous of spiritual alternatives. Would you really trust Forbes for advice on meditation and choosing a spiritual teacher? As I joked in a previous article, maybe the reason PIX11 News runs hoax stories about spiritual groups is that those groups aren’t buying enough bourbon. In a society which has become both consumerist and conformist, those offering spiritual alternatives may be depicted as the enemy.
PIX11 News ties its on-air promotion of liquor brands to Facebook promotions that further blur the lines. This just in: Drinking, baseball, and pretty girls are good. Watch PIX11 News for more of all three. What isn’t good? Nonconformists and party-poopers. BOO! HISS! (And you wonder why your kids seem stupid, and can’t seem to separate their desires of the moment from facts, ethics, and abstract concepts? Maybe it’s because TV news has turned to Silly Putty far beyond the wildest dreams of Paddy Cheyefsky in Network.)
PIX11 News runs hoax stories like this one produced by Mary Murphy, which was the subject of considerable blowback. To media critics, this combination of sponsored content coaxing kids to drink and hoax stories trolling convenient minorities is a deadly cocktail — deadly in the sense that it deals a fatal blow to the credibility of the Tribune brand, associated with both WPIX-TV, the Hartford Courant, and numerous other media properties. Under Rich Graziano’s past stewardship, the Courant likewise developed a reputation for sacrificing integrity to please advertisers. According to this New York Times story, columnist George Gombossy was allegedly fired for airing consumer complaints about Courant advertisers.
WPIX-TV has had a troubled history, including a series of name changes as the poisoned chalice was passed from one media conglomerate to another: Channel 11, 11Alive, the WB11, the CW11, currently PIX11, but in the future, who knows? Viewing their veritable infomercial for Four Roses Bourbon, I wonder why not FourRoses11? After announcing the name change, Rich Graziano could give his assurances that this won’t mean major changes at the station. “We’ll continue to be focused on sports and entertainment,” Graziano could say. “One minor change is that the FourRoses11 News will open with bourbon news before going to local, national, and world news.”
The Bourbon News for May 21st, 2016
Kaity Tong: Have your kids been diagnosed with ADHD because they get up and wander around the classroom when they’re supposed to be watching a slideshow about Mesopotamian burial rituals? Kori Chambers just might have the answer.
Kori Chambers: That’s right, Kaity. May is National Attention Deficit Disorder Awareness Month, so we’ve invited bartender Franky Marshall back. She’s going to explain how mixed drinks just might calm your kids down. Plus, she’s got some great recipes using (what else?) Four Roses Bourbon. Franky, what can you tell us?
Franky Marshall: Well, it’s awfully hard to calm kids down these days, and filling those prescriptions for Ritalin can cost an arm and a leg. That’s why many parents are opting for an old-fashioned solution. Add a jigger of Four Roses Yellow Label to Hawaiian Punch and you’ve got a Hawaiian Haymaker. It’s a refreshing taste treat kids can’t resist, and will also mellow them out considerably. Or add two jiggers of Four Roses Small Batch to strawberry Yoo-Hoo for a drink we call a Shot In The Head. Now that film about dental hygiene shown in assembly will seem a lot more interesting. Try a sip, Kori!
Kori Chambers: Oh no, not while I’m on duty. I can’t. But the aroma, mmmmmmhhh…
Franky Marshall: Then pour some on your head, Kori. It also makes a great baldness remedy.
Kori Chambers [pours mixture on head]: That is refreshing! I can feel the follicles waking up and starting to grow. And yet they’re not too agitated. I get the feeling they could listen to a boring lecture and not walk out…
Franky Marshall: Right now we have a special promotion going with Facebook and FourRoses11. Kids, sign on and tell us in 50 words or less how Four Roses Bourbon helped you make it through the school day, and you could win this handsome prize. See? It looks like a history book, but when you open it, it actually contains a jigger of Four Roses for emergencies — like when your 6th grade teacher starts covering the Peloponnesian War.
Kori Chambers: Oooh, I remember that — or at least I remember forgetting it. I could have used some Four Roses back then.
Franky Marshall: One last drink for you, Kori. This one’s called a Woodside Wannamaker. Take half a jigger of Four Roses Single Barrel, combine with three jiggers grave water and the grated erasers from three Eberhard Faber pencils. Add a dash of bitters, a note from the principal, then shake with ice and pour into a diorama depicting the extinction of the mastodon. Garnish with a discarded rosary bead, and drink it through a straw.
Kori Chambers: It looks delicious! Sure wish I could try some. But wait a minute boys and girls, who’s that? Why it’s Bob, the director of our FourRoses11 News broadcast. Whaddya say, Bob? Have you worked up a thirst today?
Bob: Sure have, Kori. Ya know kids, directing the news is hard work, man’s work, and it works up a powerful thirst too. One of the fringe benefits of working here at FourRoses11 is all the great stories involving food products — whether it’s Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, McDonald’s Big Macs, or Starbucks Lattes. But my personal faves are the stories about cocktails you can make at home and even bring to school. [Quaffs down the Woodside Wannamaker in one big gulp.] Ahhh, now that’s what I call refreshing!
Kori Chambers: We’re putting that recipe up on FourRoses11, in case you didn’t get it. Just go to FourRoses11-dot-com-slash-mastodon. Or send for our free video “Teach Your Kids To Drink Religiously.” Franky, always good to have you here. I won’t question the pink hair. Back to you, Kaity!
KaityTong: Just say no to Ritalin, just say yes to Four Roses. I love it! Now for some local news…
[Just then, Officer Joe Bolton capers onto the set swinging his billy club, and closes down the station for holding an open bar without a liquor license. “Show’s over, nothing to see here folks!” Bolton exclaims in a thick Irish brogue, as the producer cuts to a cart claiming “technical difficulties.”]
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How to complain to the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission
This article is primarily about the ethics and mechanics of native advertising. A separate topic is the legality of native advertising. The Federal Trade Commission is understandably concerned with native advertising, and provides a Guide For Businesses which underscores the requirement that any native advertising must include clear and prominent disclosure of the ad’s commercial nature. PIX11’s native advertising for Four Roses Bourbon, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and a wide variety of other products appears to flout this requirement, and may therefore violate the law.
PIX11’s native advertising isn’t confined to just a few minutes of broadcast or cable TV time. The videos are subsequently posted online, not just on PIX11’s site, but also on Amazon.com, AOL.com, and HuffingtonPost.com. None of these other entities regurgitating PIX11 native ads properly label them either. For example, Amazon.com labels them “free video shorts,” notwithstanding that they’re obviously product ads which often include pricing info and where-to-buy. Though not detailed in this article, other major purchasers of native advertising on PIX11 News appear to be McDonald’s, Starbucks, and children’s clothing retailers.
If you’re concerned about native advertising in general, and its use to promote hard liquor to children in particular, then complain to the FTC here:
Complaining to the FTC is crucial because the explosion in native advertising virtually guarantees that the FTC won’t know about every violation unless informed by irate consumers. It’s basically a game of whack-a-mole. As in a John le Carré spy novel, the FTC needs your help finding the moles.
The FTC’s website uses a wizard-driven menu for filing complaints, but it’s easy to navigate. Since the problem with WPIX-TV doesn’t fit a prefab category, use the “Other” category and fill in:
Native advertising, failure to disclose sponsored content, marketing hard liquor to children.
Then describe the problem briefly, and give links to the PIX11 videos cited in this blog post, or to the blog post itself. When asked for company details, fill in:
Richard Graziano, President and General Manager
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017-5806
You may also want to mention that WPIX-TV is owned by Tribune Media.
If you have any trouble using the online wizard, there’s a box you can click (during weekday business hours) to chat live with an FTC representative, or you can call this toll-free number: 1-877-FTC-HELP
Native advertising is legal when fully disclosed, but TV broadcasters may get away with a tiny, illegible notice that quickly scrolls by. When there’s no disclosure, that’s payola plain and simple, and violates FCC rules against payola. To complain to the FCC:
– File a complaint online
– By phone: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322); ASL: 1-844-432-2275
– By mail (please include your name, address, contact information and as much detail about your complaint as possible):
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554
That the FCC takes such violations seriously is indicated by the following: “TV Station Agrees to $115,000 FCC Fine for Not Identifying Sponsor of Program Promoting a Sale at Auto Dealership.”
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
For Further Reading:
“Disguising ads as stories”
“Native Advertising Examples: 5 of the Best (and Worst)”
“Five Tricky Ad Trends to Watch for in 2015”
“Native advertising and sponsored content: Research on audience, ethics, effectiveness”
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