Politics as product placement

We now learn, thanks to a great piece by Kenneth P. Vogel and Lucy McCalmont (Politico), that political groups are not only buying ads, but product placement as well–at least on the right end of the political spectrum.

The largest and wealthiest conservative groups have been spending millions to buy air time on conservative radio shows.   Americans for Prosperity sponsors Mark Levin, who touts their effectiveness, while Glenn Beck receives a fee for promoting FreedomWorks.  Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation “invests” in Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who praise, defend, and fund raise for the groups on the air.  Vogel and McCalmont report:

The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s – and considers it money well spent.

“We approach it the way anyone approaches advertising: where is our audience that wants to buy what you sell?” Genevieve Wood, Heritage’s vice president for operations and marketing. “And their audiences obviously fit that model for us. They promote conservative ideas and that’s what we do.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Beck and Limbaugh and all don’t actually believe the things they say about conservative causes in general, and their sponsors in particular, but it’s worth remembering that they get paid to say those things.

Entertainers on commercial radio, regardless of their politics, are in the business of selling.  The more popular they are, the more they can sell ads for, and drawing lines between the content of the show and the advertisements is dicey business.  We all know when a local disc jockey talks about his good friends at a restaurant, insurance agency, or gym, that there’s a commercial component to this friendship.

Advocacy groups have been buying advertisements for some time now; it’s one way to get their message and their organization out to a broader audience, and this phenomenon has reached across the political spectrum.  With an ad, the group doesn’t have to depend upon an event or a reporter to get the message exactly right.  Money, if you have it, can provide an easy answer to those challenges.  PETA has been buying provocative ads in college newspapers (and elsewhere) for years, and generated real news coverage by doing so.

While PETA trades on provocation, the Alliance for Climate Protection has virtually obscured its politics promising consensus in a series of high profile ads in slick magazine and on television, including this one (left) featuring Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sitting together.  They are, ostensibly, talking about the need to protect the earth from climate change, suggesting that there can be political alliances on the environment that cross the partisan divide.  (This seems fanciful now).

So, what’s the difference between an advertisement and product placement?

A simple start is that commercials and ads are designated as such.  The radio or television program or magazine editor has no influence on content, and doesn’t explicitly endorse the product.  We can ignore ads; if we pay attention, we can do so critically, knowing they are commercial speech.

This creates at least two problems for advertisers today: viewers are sophisticated and cynical–at least they think they are; and technology keeps making it easier to avoid even noticing the ads.  A viewer with quick reflexes and a DVR can watch an hour of television in 44 minutes, skipping all the ads without even getting up for a snack.

So advertisers have been skillfully sneaking into the programs.  When lifeguard David Hasselhoff opens his fridge to offer a new lifeguard a cold drink, be sure that you’ll see a case of whatever root beer anted up the most money.  When Wayne goes for pizza, Mike Myers is financing his movie.

Morgan Spurlock, in Pom Wonderful Present: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, has had more fun with this than I’m capable of.  Suffice it to say that product placement is so ubiquitous that grade schoolers watching tv enjoy playing “Who paid for that?”

Is there something different about politics?  It’s not like Limbaugh et al. are selling their shows (much less their souls) to causes they despise.  Organizations on the left, according to Vogel and McCammon, haven’t been playing this game–and they would be unlikely to go after the conservative radio audiences anyway.  But groups on the right, even as they agree on matters of public policy, compete with each other for attention and donations, and general primacy in the larger conservative movement.

Americans for Prosperity (funded by the Koch Brothers) and FreedomWorks (led by Dick Armey) grew out of Citizens for a Sound Economy, splitting because of differences on leadership and political priorities.   Are Glenn Beck’s political commitments so strong that he wouldn’t allow the two to bid against each other for time on his show?  Is his integrity so developed that he would discuss controversies within the organization? Do his audiences know that he’s paid to tout organizations that he says impress him?

Are some rhetorical questions too obvious to ask?

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Politics as product placement

  1. Pingback: Bankrolling Tea Party radio | Politics Outdoors

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