February 11th, 2005

FTC Caves in to Advertisers & Broadcasters on Product Placement

By Gary Ruskin
Commercial Alert

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission rejected Commercial Alert’s request for disclosure of product placement on television.The FTC agreed with us that “there may be instances in which the line between advertising and programming may be blurred.” Even so, they dismissed the idea that product placement causes “consumer injury,” even though, for example, product placement of junk food is commonplace on TV, and that American children are suffering from an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Essentially, the FTC has taken the position that companies may broadcast undisclosed commercial propaganda on airwaves that we the people own, and that are supposed to be operated for our benefit.

This is an outrage. We deserve an FTC that will stop the dishonest practices of the advertising industry, and stand up for the health of our children.

You can help by telling your Members of Congress to support the Parents’ Bill of Rights, a set of nine legislative proposals to restore to parents some control over the commercial influences on their children’s lives. The congressional switchboard phone is 202-225-3121.

One important part of the Parents’ Bill of Rights is the Product Placement Disclosure Act, which would require clear and conspicuous disclosure of product placement on TV, movies, videos and video games. (For those of you who contacted your Members of Congress about the Parents’ Bill of Rights, please do so again.  A new Congress began this year, and that means we need you to send new emails and make new phone calls.)

You can also multiply our efforts by sharing this information with your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

The FTC wrote to us: “When the Commission considers whether an advertisement directed to children is deceptive, it examines the ad from the standpoint of an ordinary child. If objective claims about a product’s attributes were made through product placement in programming directed to children, the Commission would consider whether the claims made would deceive an ordinary child. If no objective claims are made for the product, then there is no claim as to which greater credence could be given; therefore, even from an ordinary child’s perspective, consumer injury from an undisclosed product placement seems unlikely.”

The FTC’s reasoning is based on the antiquated notion that advertising persuades only through objective claims, not images. That argument may have been somewhat true seventy years ago, but is certainly wrong today. Advertisers use product placement precisely because children (and adults) generally do put “greater credence” on product placements for Coca-Cola on American Idol than they do for regular 30-second ads for Coca-Cola.

As you might expect, a recent study in the British medical journal Lancet confirmed that product placement and product viewing are powerful negative influences on teens. It found that “viewing smoking in movies strongly predicts whether or not adolescents initiate smoking, and the effect increases significantly with greater exposure. Adolescents who viewed the most smoking in movies were almost three times more likely to initiate smoking than those with the least amount of exposure.”

The Institute of Medicine understood the harmful effects of product placement on children when it recommended last year that “the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should convene a national conference to develop guidelines for the advertising and marketing of foods, beverages and sedentary entertainment directed at children and youth with attention to product placement, promotion, and content.”

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