Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NBC And General Mills: Mutual Back Scratchers

I think that NBC and General Mills must have drawn blood from scratching each other's backs so hard. On the May 12 Nightly News, Robert Bazell did a story that was purportedly about how the FDA had reprimanded General Mills for making false claims about Cheerios. The story was supposed to expose the FDA's criticism of Cheerios, but in reality, the story contains far more praise than criticism. Two days after this story aired, Cheerios commercials began appearing regularly on Nightly News. And on the June 10 broadcast, just before the first commercial break, we heard the following announcement, "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams--brought to you in part by Cheerios." A large Cheerios logo accompanied the announcement. It's obvious what's going on here. The May 12 story treated Cheerios with kid gloves. NBC did their pals at General Mills a huge favor by turning the FDA story into a fluff piece, and in return General Mills bought a nice chunk of advertising and sponsorship space on Nightly News.

Robert Bazell's May 12 report intentionally minimized the FDA aspect of the story and instead spent a significant amount of time promoting the positive attributes of Cheerios--a major NBC sponsor. Here's the first line of Bazell's story: "It is one of America's iconic products--Cheerios." We are then shown 20 seconds of Cheerios commercials while Bazell tells us that, "Soluble oat fiber--a key component--can help reduce cholesterol." In other words, Bazell makes a claim that the FDA has expressly forbidden General Mills from making. He then briefly interrupts his Cheerios love-fest to mention the FDA reprimand: "A letter from the FDA to General Mills, the manufacturer, says that the health claims have gone too far. The big problem is those claims about how much cholesterol can be reduced in how many weeks. They are repeated on the box. The FDA says those are drug-like claims that can only be made after studies have been submitted to the agency and approved." As Bazell says this, he is sitting at a table with a bowl of Cheerios in front of him, and at least six boxes of Cheerios neatly stacked next to him. He looks like he's in a Cheerios commercial. Bazell continues, "In a statement, General Mills said, 'The science is not in question and we look forward to discussing this with the FDA and reaching a resolution.'" Bazell does not question the General Mills statement--he simply accepts it as fact. The General Mills statement also appears on screen alongside a pleasing graphic of a breakfast table with a bowl of Cheerios, a box of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice. We then see a close-up of milk being poured into a bowl of Cheerios. There is a brief interview with a doctor who says that three grams of soluble fiber is not really going to help you, but that it's better than eating something that's high in fat. Bazell then twists this statement into, "Food industry experts say there is no question that Cheerios is a healthy product but the FDA seems to be paying more attention to the claims that companies make." No question! Bazell's commercial--I mean news story--ends with boxes of Cheerios going by on a conveyor belt, a slow pan down a box of Cheerios, and a mother pouring some Cheerios for her toddler. That is unbelievable. The actual point of the story--the FDA's reprimand of General Mills--is completely dwarfed by the positive images and Bazell's unabashed praise of Cheerios.

There seems little doubt that before preparing this story, the NBC producers collaborated with the Cheerios marketing team to devise a strategy that best highlights the positive qualities of the product, while also minimizing the FDA reprimand. And the strategy seems to have worked. There are so many positive images of Cheerios in this story that a viewer could not be blamed for missing the fact that General Mills has been reprimanded by the FDA for misleading consumers. Bazell treats General Mills' violation as if it were nothing more than a minor paperwork error, while relentlessly championing the positive aspects of the product.

And this is not the first time that Nightly News has given Cheerios free air time. On a March 3 "We The People" story about Spanish-language advertising, Nightly News showed 15 seconds of a Cheerios ad. This is hardly surprising. General Mills spends millions and millions of dollars each year advertising with NBC, so it is makes sense that NBC would return the favor by giving General Mills free publicity on Nightly News stories. And it is certainly not surprising that Nightly News would soften a negative story about Cheerios with a non-stop barrage of positive images.

Three days after the May 12 story aired, General Mills began running 15-second Cheerios ads on Nightly News. And a month later, Cheerios became a sponsor of Nightly News. Thanks to the way Bazell reported the story, General Mills dodged a bullet. They got positive publicity from what could have been a negative story. General Mills did pretty well for themselves, but NBC is clearly the big winner here. Cheerios is now buying extra ads and sponsorships, so the network is making even more money. This is a blatant case of "I'll do you a favor if you do me a favor".

Here's an interesting postscript: On May 14, two days after the Cheerios story ran, Robert Bazell did a story about the presence of salmonella in frozen pot pies. A more in-depth story on the front page of that day's New York Times told us that in 2007, five million Totino's and Jeno's pizzas were recalled because of an E. coli outbreak. And who owns Totino's and Jeno's? General Mills--the same company that makes Cheerios. But the Nightly News story on salmonella never said that General Mills products had been recalled. I guess Bazell must have forgotten to mention it.

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