Skipping The Ads On TV? Get Ready For The Shows That Are The Ads

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You know regular product placement, right? Top Chef and its plugs for frozen meals and Gladware, cars being name-checked by action stars speeding away in them, and — of course — the carbonation-off currently taking place between American Idol (COKE! COKE! COKE!) and The X Factor (PEPSI! PEPSI! PEPSI!). But as Elizabeth Blair reports on Wednesday's Morning Edition, you haven't seen anything yet.

Consider My Yard Goes Disney. No, seriously. Consider it. As much as you may hesitate. It's a show where Disney theme park designers visit civilian backyards to make them over. This ratcheting up of in-show advertising to the point where the show itself announces that it is all about taking your normal existence and branding it as you would if you lived at a for-profit theme park, while it may seem bizarre, is an outgrowth of advertisers' increasing desperation to get you to see what they're trying to show you. As Advertising Age writer Brian Steinberg explains it, the more you have the ability to avoid conventional ads, the more advertisers begin seeking other strategies. (Cue spine-tingling music.)

In one episode, the designers give the family a Mickey-shaped pool.

And don't think it's just Disney. Elizabeth Blair also looks at a Cooking Channel show called From the Kitchens Of, which shows you the test kitchens of companies like Pillsbury and Hillshire Farms. The companies that are featured both share in the costs of making the show and agree to buy advertising. And almost two-thirds of the audience doesn't consider it to be an ad, even though ... you know, it basically is one.

Consider this ad/segment from the "From The Kitchens Of Jimmy Dean" episode, in which the host prepares apple-sausage pancakes. All the ingredients are generic and not branded, with the exception of not only Jimmy Dean sausage, but the "star ingredient," Jimmy Dean Hearty Sausage Crumbles, which are pre-cooked, bagged sausage bits. The show is careful to point out their resealable bag (handy!) and pre-seasoning (so easy!).

Or this one, in which the host teaches you to bread your own cheese sticks with crushed Town House crackers. ("From The Kitchens Of Town House Crackers," naturally.)

It's not just food companies, either: On one episode, the sponsor is Kenmore, and you learn to make angel food cake from a mix in the microwave, using a setup that includes paper cups, paper towels, and muffin wrappers. This is a great advance for people who find making cake from a mix in the oven too burdensome.

If you suspect that not everybody is enthused about this development, you're right. Blair talks to Robert Weissman of the advocacy group Public Citizen, who has long argued that if you're paying for any kind of placement of your product in a show, there should be explicit disclosure that it's a piece of advertising. Weissman is particularly irked by undisclosed advertising to children.

And if you don't like advertising aimed at children, you're probably among the people disconcerted by the appearance last year of The Hub, a channel born of a collaboration between Discovery Communications and Hasbro. If you guessed that The Hub includes a significant number of shows that happen to be about Hasbro toys — like My Little Pony, to name one particularly ubiquitous example — you guessed correctly. Weissman's response? Well, it's not enthusiastic. In fact, he calls the whole thing "nefarious."

The CEO of The Hub, Margaret Loesch, told Blair in an email that these shows are entertainment for kids, and not necessarily different from the rest of successful children's television, nearly all of which has some kind of merchandising tagged to it.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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