Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Nightly News Producers Manipulate Stories To Highlight Sponsors

It is outrageous that Nightly News has once again used the premise of a news story as an excuse to feature a product placement for one of their regular sponsors. Friday's story about how American shoppers are relying less on credit cards (and more on debit cards and cash) was little more than a commercial for Cheerios.

The story begins in a Target store as Kristen Welker tells us that, "Every cent counts when Sarah and David Winfrey go shopping." As she says this, the Winfreys are in the cereal aisle in front of a massive wall of Cheerios. By my count there are at least 50 facings of Cheerios cereals. Now, I have been in my share of Targets in my life, but I have never, ever seen one displaying 50 facings of the same brand of cereal. It's obvious what's going on here. The Nightly News producers staged this scene to promote Cheerios. They arranged with (and possibly paid) Target management to clear out other brands of cereal and stock the shelves entirely with Cheerios. This is even more apparent when Sarah takes a box off the shelf, revealing that the boxes are stocked only one or two deep. This is a classic retail trick to make shelves appear more full than they really are. So why would the Nightly News producers rearrange the shelves to have 50 facings of Cheerios? Because Cheerios advertises regularly on Nightly News, sometimes twice a night. And in the past three months, Cheerios has been an in-show sponsor of Nightly News five times, including twice as the broadcast's sole sponsor (the partial sponsor dates were 9/1, 8/4, and 7/20; the sole sponsor dates were 6/24 and 6/21). The producers staged the supermarket scene to thank General Mills for all the ad dollars they have spent with NBC over the years. Or perhaps this is a paid sponsorship. Maybe the Nightly News advertising sales department approached General Mills and said that for a fee, they would prominently include Cheerios in a Nightly News story. Maybe it's part of a package deal that comprises commercials, broadcast sponsorship and inclusion in a news story.

Unfortunately, the placement doesn't end there. Welker continues, "The young parents...are always looking for discounts and learning to live within their means." By saying this (and her previous statement about how "every cent counts"), Welker is reinforcing to the viewers that Cheerios are a good value. After they leave the cereal aisle, we see the Winfreys walking through the store with their box of Cheerios prominently sticking out of their shopping basket. Then, at the checkout, the cashier grabs the Cheerios box first (of course) and holds it at just the right angle for the camera to get a good shot of it. The Winfreys then exit the store with the yellow Cheerios box clearly showing through their Target bag. The first 45 seconds of this story is a non-stop product placement for Cheerios. In fact I wonder: Did the Nightly News producers instruct the Winfreys to buy Cheerios? Are the Winfreys even a real couple, or are they actors hired by the producers for the purpose of advertising Cheerios. And just in case we didn't get the point, the second-to-last shot of the story is an extreme close-up of Sarah feeding Cheerios to her baby. It is mind-boggling that the producers have the audacity to include Cheerios as part of a news story.

Of course, this isn't the first time that Nightly News has promoted Cheerios in a this way. On 5/12/09, they did an entire story on Cheerios. The premise of the story was to refute some FDA accusations regarding health claims General Mills made about Cheerios. In fact, Nightly News used this as an excuse to run an entire story praising Cheerios. Here's how Robert Bazell began the story: "It is one of America's iconic products--Cheerios." We are then shown 20 seconds of vintage 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. 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. Bazell then tells us that, "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." 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. In fact, there are so many positive images of Cheerios in this story that a viewer could not be blamed for missing the point 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. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that General Mills collaborated with the Nightly News producers on that story. Nightly News also featured Cheerios in a 3/3/09 "We The People" story about Spanish-language advertising, during which they showed 15 seconds of a Cheerios commercial.

Nightly News certainly likes to promote their favorite sponsors in news stories. But they also like to protect their sponsors from negative publicity. On the 11/3/09 broadcast, Tom Costello reported on harmful BPA levels in plastic bottles and canned food liners. Costello told us that the chemical was present in "brand name foods from vegetable soup to tuna fish, green beans to corn and chili." But the accompanying graphic showed only generic cans labeled "chili", "vegetable soup", "green beans" and "tuna". Where are the name brands? There were none--the producers obscured them all. Meanwhile, ABC's World News reported the same story on the same night. The ABC story showed canned goods from Del Monte, Progresso, Campbell's, Hormel, Hunt's, Bush's and Chef Boyardee. Clearly, Nightly News refrained from showing brand names as a favor to the many food companies that advertise on NBC shows. Over the years, Nightly News's sponsors have included Bush's Beans, Progresso, Swanson and Chef Boyardee. And any regular Nightly News viewer knows that Campbell's is a heavy advertiser.

How many more times are the Nightly News producers going to feature Cheerios (or Chrysler, McDonald's, United Airlines, Aleve, Boniva, Requip, Microsoft, etc.) in news stories before they understand that it is completely inappropriate to do so? This practice clearly crosses an ethical line and should stop immediately. In fact, I think the Nightly News producers owe the viewers an apology for intentionally bombarding us with advertising images in news stories.

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