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Products are people too

Presidential candidates and TV news anchors are just different flavors of McDonald's iced coffee.

August 02, 2008|Howard Rosenberg | Special to The Times

Memo to Barack Obama: You know in your heart the surge strategy worked. That is, the media surge strategy -- enticing a posse of network anchors and press hordes to ride your coattails and hang on your every word during last month's picturesque swing through the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe that culminated in a speech before an estimated 200,000 flag-waving Berliners.

Memo to John McCain: You were watching too. And admit it, worrying. Why else would your campaign have launched a controversial ad likening Obama to airheads Paris Hilton and Britney Spears with the boisterous Berlin throng as backdrop?

What we have here are two ads, the first an epic freebie to Obama courtesy of the news media, the second bought by McCain but at bargain rates given how the press has ballooned its exposure by writing and talking about it.

Though actually, our story about advertising begins . . . in Las Vegas.

Media straight arrows are unhappy about a Las Vegas TV station's business decision to plant McDonald's iced coffees in front of two anchors during its morning newscast. They fear what happens in Vegas won't stay in Vegas.

Camera ready with straws high and logos visible, the tall plastic cups sit on the Fox 5 TV anchor desk during 7-9 a.m. news-and-lifestyle segments on Meredith Corp.-owned KVVU.

Embedding paid pitches within programs (outside regular commercial slots) is known as product placement, a practice on the rise as the TV industry seeks to boost advertising revenue in these rough economic times and trip up TiVoers who zip through conventional ads.

KVVU has company. Reuters reports that McDonald's has also bought product placement on morning news shows at WFLD in Chicago, Univision 41 in New York City and Seattle's KCPQ, whose owner, Tribune Co., also owns this paper.

Product placement is hardly new, its TV lineage nearly as old as TV itself. In the 1950s, writers, directors and actors routinely got paid on the side for slipping products or brand names into programs. More than 50 years later, the practice continues openly on a grander scale, with Ford, Heineken, Levi's, Mattel and Crest just some of the brands that have bought cameos in TV series. Moreover, Herbal Essences became an entire story line in an episode of the former WB series "What I Like About You." And is it coincidence that when a laptop is opened in prime time it's usually an Apple?

Ho-hum to product placement in entertainment. "But this [McDonald's] is the first time," reports the Guardian, a British newspaper, ominously, that "the form has percolated through to news broadcasting."

If only. . . .

It's hard to get exercised about Fox 5 TV, who, its critics say, was slinging Happy Meals journalism long before McDonald's joined the news team. And besides, product placement -- the unpaid kind -- for years has been the marrow, the very DNA, of most TV news.

From local news to cable's 24-hour crowd, the product that TV news pushes most relentlessly is . . . itself. If it devoted as much time to self-examination as self-promotion, its performance would improve dramatically.

Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, for example, have spent much of the election season anointing themselves and their CNN colleagues "the best political team on television." If not that, the best at self-flattery.

The industry gets away with narcissistic behavior because it has accustomed viewers to its self-serving excesses.

These run from polishing ornamental news personalities to make them gleam like the credible journalists they're not, to utilizing newscasts to cross-promote their stations and networks.

One of the most egregious examples of this wanton self-absorption came some years ago when a murdered boy's parents just happened to be wearing T-shirts with the KCBS Channel 2 logo when interviewed on camera by one of the L.A. station's reporters.

Newscasters, like chest-thumping politicians, never stop running for office. The two subcultures merged ingloriously overseas during Obamarama, when the product placed, day after day, was not iced coffee but the Big Mac himself.

Create a seductive stunt, and media will come.

They always have. Flash back to 1980. Ted Kennedy, hoping to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from incumbent Jimmy Carter, was campaigning in Illinois when the press bus I was on stopped at a service station where Kennedy was immediately swarmed by media, cameras rolling, while speaking with an attendant. A Kennedy press aide told me: "The senator is finding out the price of gas."

He couldn't have found out by making a call? As blatant as candidates kissing babies, this cornball bit of theater likely yielded a few seconds of background footage for TV roundups on Kennedy that night.

Such stunts didn't win him the nomination, any more than Obama will secure the presidency by accepting his own nomination Aug. 28 at Denver's 76,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High, instead of at a much smaller arena across town where the Democrats' national convention will be held.

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