BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, the consumer group Commercial Alert filed petitions with both the FCC and FTC, calling for an investigation into the practice of using product placements in TV programs. "Embedded advertising is the new reality of television," the petition read, "and it is time for the commission to address it. TV networks and stations regularly send programs into American living rooms that are packed with product placements and other veiled commercial pitches, but they pretend that these are just ordinary programming rather than paid ads. This is an affront to basic honesty." The group wants new guidelines that require advertisers to fully disclose when they've paid for placement of their product, both before the program and during the show, so when TV president Jeb Bartlet, relaxing in his quarters, reaches, say, for his Pringles, the word advertisement would flash at the bottom of the screen. Gary Ruskin founded Commercial Alert with Ralph Nader in 1998 and serves as its executive director. Welcome to the show.
GARY RUSKIN: Hey, thanks for having me on a show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So first off, what's the problem, as you see it, with product placement?
GARY RUSKIN: Essentially, infomercials are threatening to swallow television. Basically there's now embedded advertising of a wide variety of sorts that's increasingly penetrating every nook and cranny of television. We now have product placement, product integration, plot placement, title placement, paid shills, virtual advertising -- but television stations aren't disclosing when ads are ads, and so the networks are being totally dishonest by not disclosing that ads are ads, and people are being are being tricked, because they don't know when the ads are ads, and they're zipping under people's consciousness into their heads, undisclosed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've been very effective at pressing for disclosure on the internet.
GARY RUSKIN:Yeah. Essentially, internet search engines have been trying to put ads into search engine results without disclosing that ads are ads, and two years ago we filed a complaint against a number of search engine companies, asking the Federal Trade Commission to require the search engine companies to tell us when ads are ads, and a year ago, the FTC basically agreed with us and did what we asked. And we are making basically a identical argument with respect to product placement on television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But we've been seeing product placement since the history of television -- I mean since the appearance of GE appliances and Procter & Gamble cosmetics in, in the soap operas of the '50s, so why now?
GARY RUSKIN: Well, it's been a basic principle of American broadcasting law that advertisers and networks have to disclose when ads are ads, and in fact since the Radio Act of 1927, broadcasters have had to obey the rule that they have to disclose when ads are ads, because listeners are entitled to know by whom they're being persuaded. And right now, broadcasters are broadly violating those rules and standards, and it's time for it to stop.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well, as we have said on this program, new technology is making it a lot easier for viewers just to skip over the commercials all together, and advertisers say that product placement is really the only survival technique left.
GARY RUSKIN: Well that's not an excuse for violating the law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well can't a case be made that product placement lends a kind of reality to a television program? There's been entire episodes of Seinfeld that have revolved around products -- an errant Junior Mint, Jujubees, Drake's Cakes, the Today Contraceptive Sponge -- these lend texture to the programs.
GARY RUSKIN: Yeah. There's a difference between product placement that's paid and product placement that's not paid. This is a, a question of paid product placement, i.e., product placement that's either paid for with money or some other financial consideration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you heard that scenario that I laid out in the introduction with the West Wing's president, Jeb Bartlet, reaching for his Pringles. If the TV program went out and bought those Pringles on their own and didn't have them donated, that wouldn't be a problem.
GARY RUSKIN: That's correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Gary, thank you very much.
GARY RUSKIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gary Ruskin is the director of Commercial Alert, and he was on the line from Portland, Oregon.