Disclosing the Pitch*

(NOTE CORRECTION IN PARAGRAPH 5)

My ex-barber became my ex-barber for one reason: Every time he cut my hair, he insisted on pitching me.

I got to hear about some new computer software venture that he and one of his friends were involved in — and then a suggestion that I get my company to buy it. While his scissors flew around my ears, he was relentlessly “getting to yes,” or trying to. It didn’t matter that I told him I had nothing to do with buying my company’s software. I was a lead, and he wasn’t going to let me wriggle free. And then, amazingly enough, I paid him!

We get pitched all the time when we’re trying to do something else. Sometimes we know when it’s happening. If you watch the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, you pretty much expect that along with football, you’ll see pictures of people enjoying corn chips.

It isn’t always so clear when you’re reading or seeing a paid message. That’s been true since the first printing press, the first radio, the first TV, and the first blog. The financial incentive to piggyback a commercial message onto the credibility of a trusted source of information or entertainment is just too strong for both marketers and content-producers to ignore.

What’s changed is the level of tolerance. What were once common practices of both the advertising and public relations industries are now unacceptable, often scandalous, and, if some people have their way, lawsuit material. The disclosure that opinion columnists Douglas Bandow and Michael Fumento accepted money from Jack Abramoff to write columns that argued his clients’ points of view cost both scribes their him his syndication deals. (NOTE: Fumento also accepted money from a company, Monsanto, to write a book about its industry, but Abramoff was not involved, hence this correction. I noticed this myself, but if anyone was misled by my error, I apologize. There is more about Fumento at the bottom of this post.)

These disclosures were a collateral effect of the Abramoff corruption investigation, and would never have been learned about otherwise. But what follows will be — I’m guessing — new policies within news organizations, op-ed syndicators, think tanks like the ones that employed Fumento and Bandow, and perhaps the public relations industry, saying that an exchange of value for opinion no longer meets ethical standards. (It will be interesting to see if the PR industry also bans undisclosed cash payments to other “influencers” like professors or community leaders.)

The First Amendment would stand in the way of legislation to ban this practice, but many governmental bodies will assuredly prohibit their departments from spending public dollars on such hidden advocacy — in response to the Armstrong Williams/Department of Education scandal of 2004.

Another sign of a trend toward message transparency came up yesterday at an American Association of Advertisers’ forum, where Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Executive Director Michael Jacobson and Commercial Alert Executive Director Gary Ruskin lectured ad executives about their many, many sins. Included in Luskin’s perorations was a warning about the common practice of paying movie and TV producers to place sponsors’ products on screen:

Ruskin evinced particular concern over paid product placement in shows, arguing that all paid advertising must identify itself as such. Brief notes about “promotional consideration” during widely ignored credits sequences, Ruskin opined, are simply laughable evasions. Worse, he went on, the “subliminal” nature of product placement ultimately leads to a “commercialization of human relationships,” with the goal of surrounding every individual with unknowing “corporate shills” — i.e., their friends and family.

He also dismissed an audience member’s suggestion that product placement for non-cash benefits like brand alignment might not constitute paid product placement. “We’re looking at paid consideration,” Ruskin replied. “And that means any consideration at all.”

(By the way, I’m not sure what “brand alignment” means either.)

If Luskin and other consumer advocates get traction with their belief that product placements should be banned or litigated out of existence, they are heading for a showdown with the advertising and media industries. They think they’re on the verge of a product placement bonanza, courtesy of digital technology. According to this story in Advertising & Marketing Review:

(I)n a few years new digital video technology will be able to seamlessly a replace any product being used by an actor in a movie or TV episode, including items held or worn, even if the actor is moving. Given the revenue potential, it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood starts making films that are designed to support digital post-production product placement, or virtual product placement. For instance, actors might simply drink soda from a solid color can, making it a simple process to overdub the image of a Coke or Pepsi can later. Using this technology, it will be possible to sell product placement permanently, or just for a specified time or regional market. Actors might appear to be drinking Coke in a movie when it was seen in Florida, but might appear to be drinking Pepsi to people seeing the same movie in California.

Internet based media will offer even more opportunities for advertisers than the theater. Since movies distributed on the Internet will already be in digital format, it will be relatively easy to insert digital tags in them to tell where to insert advertiser’s products.

The article is worth reading. Author Glen Emerson Morris starts to imagine the kinds of issues digital product placement will raise:

Since no law prohibits the digital replacement of products already in films, could Coke pay to have Pepsi cans magically replaced with Coke cans in movies distributed on the Internet? If Pepsi hadn’t paid for the placement in the first place, would they have any legal recourse to being replaced? What if Pepsi had paid for the placement originally?

The ethic that forced Bandow and Fumento to lose their pundit jobs seems to me to be on a collision course with the advertising industry’s evolving reliance on product placement to get their clients’ messages out.

P.S. Michael Fumento defended himself against the op-ed-for-hire allegations in this piece from yesterday’s National Review Online. He doesn’t defend the practice. He pleads innocent and says his firing from Scripps Howard News Service was unjustified. Fumento’s also mad at NRO’s columnist (and LA-based blogger) Catherine Seipp, who wrote about rumors of Fumento’s “payola” a week ago in her widely-discussed piece on the practice.

Seipp, who likes a good fight, has just posted a polite response to Fumento on her blog. The issue is whether Fumento’s request for a $60,000 grant from Monsanto to write a book in 1999 should have been disclosed when he wrote laudatory words about the company in subsequent op-eds. Seipp, and Scripps Howard take one view, Fumento the other.

For what it’s worth, I see a degree of distinction between Fumento and other implicated journalists. But Fumento couldn’t have missed the drubbing Armstrong Williams took for accepting money for his opinions. It was, at minimum, incautious of Fumento not to begin making full disclosures from that point forward. I think that’s the standard we’ve slipped, tripped and fallen into since last year.

One thought on “Disclosing the Pitch*

  1. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… » Blog Archive » The PR Tax

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