On Thursday, April 17, 2014, NBC News Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman reported a story about allergies for NBC Nightly News. During this story, she informed us that allergy shots could alleviate allergy symptoms. Then she added this: "But now there are alternatives to injections. Two new prescription pills just approved by the FDA treat certain grass pollen allergies. Both melt under the tongue. Grastek is for ages 5 years to 65, Oralair for ages 10 to 65. Another, Ragwitek is approved for ragweed pollen." During Snyderman's narration, three animated prescription pads appeared on the screen, each prominently containing the name and logo of the drugs she had just described. Two of these drugs--Grastek and Ragwitek--are manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Merck (Oralair is manufactured by Stallergenes and distributed in the U.S. by Greer Laboratories).
Exactly one minute after Snyderman's story concluded, Nightly News aired a commercial for Shinglesinfo.com--a pseudo-informational website sponsored by Merck that contains a link to another site for the shingles vaccine drug Zostavax, which is (not surprisingly) manufactured by Merck. Five minutes after the shingles ad, Nightly News aired a commercial for Dr. Scholl's P.R.O. Pain Relief Orthotics--another Merck product. There was a precedent for Snyderman's dubious behavior: She had previously plugged Merck's Grastek in an allergy story that aired on the 12/11/13 Nightly News, a broadcast that also carried a commercial for Merck's Oxytrol.
It seems pretty obvious what's happening here. At the very least, Snyderman made a point of plugging one of NBC's big sponsors in her allergy stories. But I suspect a much less innocuous situation. I believe that both of these allergy stories were concocted by the NBC Advertising and Marketing Department for the sole purpose of plugging newly-approved Merck drugs. They may have even been part of a package deal. NBC could have offered Merck a certain number of weekly or monthly ads on Nightly News--plus one or more in-story promotional plugs--for a special rate. Certainly a plug from NBC News's Chief Medical Editor offers gravitas--a tremendous benefit for a pharmaceutical company whose products are fighting for attention alongside all the other products that are crammed into a 2½ minute commercial break. And many (if not most) viewers ignore or zip through commercials, so an in-story product placement virtually guarantees that people will be watching.
Even before these allergy stories, Snyderman had already shilled for Merck. On 6/4/13, she reported a Nightly News story about the benefits of sunscreen as a skin protector and anti-aging agent. That report began with a clip from a Bain de Soleil ad (including the familiar jingle "Bain de Soleil for that Saint-Tropez tan"). Later in the story, the camera panned across a well-placed studio array of seven bottles of sunscreen, including three bottles of Coppertone--which were prominently positioned in front of the other sunscreens. Both Bain de Soleil and Coppertone were, at the time, manufactured by Merck [Note: As of July, 2014, Coppertone was acquired by Bayer]. Eight minutes after Snyderman's story aired, Nightly News ran a commercial for the aforementioned Dr. Scholl's P.R.O. Pain Relief Orthotics--which are (as previously noted) also a Merck product. This is no coincidence. NBC Nightly News producers, anchors and correspondents have a history of using "news stories" to plug NBC sponsors' products. (For a detailed list of NBC Nightly News plugs and product placements, see this blog's 6/12/13 entry: "Brian Williams Uses Product Placements In NBC Nightly News Stories" or click on this link: http://nightly-daily.blogspot.com/2013/06/brian-williams-and-his-producers.html.)
But please don't get the idea that Merck is the only company that Snyderman shills for. On 1/2/13, Nightly News aired Snyderman's story on fructose. It included ad clips for Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers and the weight-loss drug Alli--which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline--a frequent NBC advertiser and Nightly News in-broadcast sponsor. A 7/15/13 Snyderman story on high blood pressure included a plug for Fritos (ironic, to say the least). Her 8/2/13 story on gluten-free food options prominently featured gluten-free products like Ian's, Amy's, Glutino, Tastykake and Mi-Del. On 8/10/13, Snyderman's story on new health insurance choices included 30 seconds of interior and exterior shots of a Starbucks. Her 9/3/13 story on Diana Nyad featured a Dairy Queen plug. On 1/15/14, Snyderman reported an alarmist story about how acetaminophen (most frequently sold in the U.S. as Tylenol) can damage the liver. This story was clearly meant to hurt Tylenol and help its competitor Aleve--a pain-relief product manufactured by regular Nightly News sponsor Bayer. On 2/27/14, she again railed about the dangers of acetaminophen.
It's shameful that any NBC producer, anchor or correspondent would use a news broadcast to plug a network sponsor, but it's even more shameful when done by a medical correspondent--and a physician, no less. Of course, if NBC is, in fact, getting paid for these in-story product placements, that elevates the situation from shameful to unethical, and perhaps even to the point of illegality. I don't see how viewers can possibly trust Nancy Snyderman to report honestly and objectively when one of her primary goals seems to be promoting the products of NBC sponsors.
UPDATE 10/13/14: Since this post was originally published, Nancy Snyderman has continued to plug pharmaceutical companies and other NBC advertisers in her NBC Nightly News stories.
5/30/14: Snyderman reported a story that plugged the hormone therapy drug Zoladex. Zoladex is manufactured by AstraZeneca, maker of Crestor, Prilosec, Nexium and Symbicort--all of which currently advertise or did advertise on Nightly News and other NBC-owned networks.
7/1/14: A Snyderman story on allergies included a plug for Xolair, made by Novartis/Genentech. Novartis also makes Theraflu, Excedrin, Benefiber and Prevacid--products that advertise on NBC.
7/15/14: A Snyderman story about dosage mistakes included a 13-second product placement for Tamiflu--manufactured by Genentech/Roche.
7/29/14: Snyderman's story about skin cancer featured a product placement for Coppertone sunscreen, which Bayer had acquired from Merck earlier that month. Snyderman didn't waste any time shilling for Bayer--which is Nightly News's biggest sponsor.
8/29/14: During her report on walk-in medical clinics, Snyderman spent 40 seconds specifically plugging Walmart's walk-in medical clinics. Walmart is a big NBC advertiser.