What neither Rhodes nor WTTG mentioned to viewers was this: The companies Rhodes mentioned on the air had paid her to plug their products. In effect, Rhodes’s appearance was a kind of stealth commercial dressed up as a traditional product-review interview.
Such product-friendly segments aren’t just potentially deceptive; they’re illegal, under a federal law that prohibits “payola” or “plugola,” as the practice is commonly known. Yet similar types of segments have grown as TV stations have expanded their early-morning newscasts over the past decade, packing them with “expert” reviews. And they are especially rife during the holiday gift-giving season.
Rhodes is one of a small army of hosts and reviewers of fashion, toys, electronic gadgets and other consumer-oriented topics who pop up on morning news shows with advice about what to buy. The advice almost always involves products from companies that have paid the expert to slip in a few favorable words. The disclosures about this arrangement can range from minimal to nonexistent.
Satellite technology makes it possible for these experts to beam into dozens of cities in a single day. Rhodes, in an interview, says she’s talked to as many as 35 morning shows in a single eight-hour stretch. Sitting in a studio in New York, she’ll start with East Coast stations before dawn and finish up on the West Coast after noon, plugging the same products over and over.
For bigger stations, such as those in Houston, Seattle, Chicago or Washington, she’ll hit the road. A few weeks after her appearance on WTTG, Rhodes was on the “Today” show, talking about the same products she spoke about on Fox5. “Isn’t it amazing?” she said of the backpack as co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford looked on.
NBC and Fox5 say they were unaware of any of Rhodes’s commercial connections at the time of her appearances. Both broadcasters say they strictly disclose all sponsor affiliations to viewers when a guest appears on a news program.
Rhodes sees no issue in accepting payment for her recommendations because, she says, her enthusiasm is genuine. ADT’s home-security monitor, for example, is “something I really believe in and use . . . I’m not going to take on any engagement with a client unless I believe in their product,” she says.
But that’s not how the federal government sees it. Under federal law, anyone who receives something of value to endorse a product must disclose that fact to a broadcaster, which is then required to inform its audience. Failure to do so can bring a fine of up to $10,000 and a one-year prison sentence.