Despite law against it, stealth commercials frequently masquerade as TV news

December 6, 2011

Alison Rhodes is passionate about child safety, and in hundreds of TV news interviews, the self-styled “Safety Mom” has talked up products designed to increase it. During a segment on WTTG’s morning news last year, for example, Rhodes showed off a home electronic monitor made by ADT and a backpack with a built-in alarm known as the iSafe bag.

“It’s amazing,” she gushed to Fox5 host Tony Perkins about the backpack. “It really is amazing.”

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.

Cast Your Vote

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.

In practice, however, the law is rarely enforced. The Federal Communications Commission has brought just 20 “payola” cases since 2000, settling or closing 12 of them, usually for small fines. An FCC spokesman, David Fiske, said the agency doesn’t monitor the airwaves itself, but rather acts only on viewer tips. “The only way we’d know [about a violation] is if someone has complained,” he said.

One such complaint from a media-watchdog group called Free Press triggered an FCC investigation of another Washington TV station, WJLA-ABC7, which resulted in a settlement last year. The station allegedly featured an organization called Choose to Save in news reports without identifying it as a station sponsor (the organization was created by the Employee Benefits Research Institute of Washington to promote retirement planning). WJLA’s parent company, Allbritton Communications, admitted no wrongdoing, but made a “voluntary” contribution of $21,000 to the U.S. Treasury to close the matter, according to the FCC.

In 2007, the agency proposed fines of $76,000 against conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and two TV-station owners for failing to disclose that Williams was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education to talk up the No Child Left Behind law in TV appearances broadcast by the stations.

The extent of TV news payola is unknown, although groups such as Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy say it is widespread. Stations rely on interviews with product-touting “experts” as a cheap source of programming, says Corie Wright, an attorney for Free Press.

But Wright calls such segments a consumer deception because they masquerade as something they’re not. Viewers expect “objective information from news programs, and that’s not the case” in these instances, she said. “The public has no idea they’re being pitched a commercial.”

Media companies that specialize in connecting product sellers to TV news operations form a small sub-industry. These middle men line up the products to be pitched and hire a host — often a camera-friendly actor or a professional in a field — to describe the goods on the air.

The middle men then contact stations, offering two- or three-minute interviews with the host, who has been coached to highlight certain features of each product. Some companies even offer to write the opening question for the station’s anchorperson. The companies will also supply so-called b-roll — background footage — that a station can incorporate into the conversation.

In a cooperative or “co-op” arrangement, the middle man arranges for the host/expert to discuss three or four products at a time, with each company paying a fee for inclusion. The fee depends on several factors — how many stations air the interviews, the size of the cumulative audience — but payments typically range from $8,000 to $12,000 per product.

The interviews are pegged to almost every holiday or occasion, with such themes as “Winning Super Bowl Recipes,” “Summer Travel Tips,” and “Spring Car Care.” Miller/Weiner Communications, a New Jersey-based production company, offers seven such themed “tours” for the year-end holidays alone. It brags on its Web site that its “Family Holiday Gift Tour” will be seen on “17 top local shows”, while its “Holiday Guys’ Gifts and Gadgets Tour” will be seen on 16 more around the country.

Stations like to air these interviews “because they need to provide content to their audience,” says Rob Long, president of Circle F Media, an Austin-based company that specializes in promoting high-tech gadgets. “We bring them expertise and material. It’s 2 1 / 2 minutes that they don’t have to [produce] themselves.”

The product makers like the exposure, Long says, especially since a newscast offers greater credibility than would a straightforward commercial.

Long’s company is careful to disclose the sponsored nature of the interview to each station. But disclosure to viewers is up to the stations.

Rhodes, the “Safety Mom,” says she always discloses her sponsors if a station asks. Both Fox5 and NBC said they believed she had no connection to any companies she mentioned on the air. “It’s [station] policy to ask guests if they are paid by a third party and if they say they are, we disclose it on air,” said Claudia Russo, a Fox5 spokesperson.

Yet Rhodes lists ADT Security Systems — one of the companies she touted — as a client on her Web site. And ADT, in turn, has touted its association with Rhodes in press releases, seminars and Web ads for the past two years.

Rhodes’s on-air endorsements get an endorsement from at least one of the companies she mentioned on the air. Inventive Concepts International, the maker of iSafe backpacks, says it got a big boost from Rhodes’s TV appearances, said Tenaya Bookout, a spokeswoman. “It has really opened the doors for iSafe,” she said.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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