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'Stealth advertising' sliding under radar into TV newscasts

Small market newscasts often include segments that benefit advertisers, say UO researchers

Advertisers’ messages are infiltrating small-market television newscasts at about the same percentage that owners of digital video recorders are skipping the commercials, say researchers at the University of Oregon.

What’s disturbing about this trend of “stealth advertising” is that viewers seldom are aware of potential slants in coverage because the connection of a story to an advertiser rarely is disclosed, said Jim Upshaw, a professor of journalism. Stealth advertising, he said, uses commercial messages that are intended to promote a product or service “that are cloaked in some other garment than a normal commercial.”

“Stations are not telling their viewers that what they are putting on the air in news or feature stories or in other news content is being done to court a specific advertiser,” Upshaw said. “I think people need to learn to be media literate, informed viewers of television. We may not be able to stop these practices but we need to be aware that these practices do exist.”

Upshaw and colleagues monitored two evening newscasts a month at 17 U.S. stations over four months in early 2004, including a February ratings sweeps week in which stations target larger audiences and thereby increase advertising revenues. The markets were affiliated with the four major commercial networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox).

They found that 90 percent of 294 monitored newscasts included at least one instance per newscast of stealth advertising. They documented 750 instances, about 2.5 individual slots per newscast – with an average of one minute, 42 seconds per occurrence – of commercial influences.

The study – co-authored by Upshaw and colleagues David Koranda, a visiting professor of advertising, and former journalism doctoral student Gennadiy Chernov, now at the University of Regina in Canada -- appeared in the June issue of the journal Electronic News.

Small market stations showed more commercially influenced material, either connected with or not connected with paid advertising, the researchers found. Small and medium markets also showed more explicitly commercially influenced promotional content.

“News is the big income generator for television stations,” Upshaw said. “Something like 40 percent of a station’s advertising sales revenue comes from ads running during newscasts or news-related presentations. Big markets do this too but often in other ways and different time slots.”

Upshaw spent 22 years as a television journalist. From 1982 to 1992 he was a reporter for the NBC-owned station in Washington, D.C. He retired from full-time teaching in June 2006. Upshaw and colleagues noted that commercial TV stations are indeed businesses.

Previous studies have found that local small-market stations broadcast a variety of news and news-like materials that appear to have advertiser influences. The purpose of the UO study was to provide a national content analysis that moves researchers into “an unprecedented exploratory effort to understand this apparent threat to the long-term credibility of television news.”

The researchers explored promotional tone or content, product placement on the screen within stories or even on the desks of anchors, sponsored segments within newscasts and news framing, in which a legitimate story quietly raises positives images of companies or brands. They also noted anecdotal examples of commercial influence at many TV stations.

In addition, the UO study explored recent trends that may be driving advertisers and television stations, respectively, to find new ways to reach the public or raise revenues.

New technologies, they noted, have allowed the public to bypass commercial radio and television stations through satellite radio, downloadable music and digital recording. A 2001 study found that owners of digital recording devices (in 5 percent of U.S. homes) spend 60 percent of their time watching recorded or delayed programs and skip 92 percent of commercials. A study in 2004 projected that that by 2010 some 41 percent of U.S. households will have such devices and advertising skipping may cost the television industry $27 billion in lost revenue.

The study’s objective was to gauge the extent of material that may have commercializing effects on newscasts, and thus potentially on viewers, the authors wrote. The study did not directly question the motives and intents of news professionals, station managers and advertisers, they added.

“Further research should broaden scholarly understanding of the complex relations between television advertising and television journalism,” they wrote. “One aim should be to expose decision-making factors that can allow unlabeled commercial elements to bob in a stream of ‘objective’ news content.”

Jim Barlow | EurekAlert!
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