Most viewers never would have known something odd was afoot when 2 News at 5 on KTVI in St. Louis broadcast a report on the 16th annual International Rotten Sneaker contest. The cameras panned over an impressive lineup of scuffed sneakers, then cut to close-ups of gum-smacking contestants sporting baseball caps and T-shirts, most of them emblazoned with the logo of the deodorizing sneaker inserts Odor-Eaters. The report closed with a shot of 9- year-old contest winner Maura Commito, who was asked to reveal the secret of her competitive strategy. Commito pointed to sneakers that peeled back at the seams to reveal wriggling toes. ”I used them for brakes on my bike,” she shrugged demurely. End of footage.
As it happened, Commito’s footwear wasn’t the only thing that smelled funny in this 90-second ”news report,” which aired on some 200 local news shows around the country last year (even the Today show and CNN picked it up). Though most of the TV stations never said so, the Rotten Sneaker segment was actually a promotional video produced by DWJ Associates, a marketing firm retained by none other than Combe Inc., the manufacturers of Odor-Eaters. To help sell the product, a DWJ production crew had created a ”video news release,” or VNR, carefully crafted to be indistinguishable from news reports produced by the TV stations.
Odor-Eaters is far from the only company touting its airs on the news these days. Product manufacturers and retailers from McDonald’s and Sears to IBM, Chrysler, and Ford have used VNRs to market their goods on TV news. And entertainment companies often employ VNRs to hype projects such as Universal’s new movie Backdraft.
At a crisis point in TV news — when longer programs and shrinking budgets have left station directors scrambling to fill an ever-expanding ”news hole” — corporate-sponsored VNRs are infiltrating the airwaves. In the last five years, the number of independents producing their own morning news shows has virtually doubled, says Steve Ridge, a vice president at Frank N. Magid Associates, a media research and consulting company. But at the same time, budget cutbacks ranging from 20 percent at stations in larger markets to 50 percent at smaller ones have hampered their ability to produce top-quality news, notes Ridge. The resulting squeeze has created an opening for VNRs, which provide professional-quality footage at no cost.
Medialink, a major distributor of VNRs, estimates that as many as 5,000 releases will be circulated to TV news stations in 1991. As Fortune magazine has pointed out, VNRs are almost as ubiquitous as music videos. And as they become increasingly pervasive, VNRs themselves are becoming big — and controversial — news. In TV circles, the releases are sparking serious debate about corporate manipulation of the news. New York Times advertising columnist Randall Rothenberg, for instance, is disturbed by the intentional blurring of the line between objective news and commercial propaganda. ”Video news releases appear to be used by marketers as a way of disguising advertising messages in order to get them onto the news. To the extent that VNRs’ messages remain hidden, they pose troubling questions,” says Rothenberg. ”They’re one of the most ominous trends on TV.”
On the other side of the argument, David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, claims that with proper editorial handling, VNRs can be a legitimate news source. ”The main issues here are editorial control and identification,” says Bartlett. ”A VNR that’s used improperly or isn’t identified is promotion, and that’s not news. However, a VNR that’s used appropriately has as much news value as a story you get from a wire or a written press release.”
From the marketer’s point of view, promotional messages hidden in the context of the news are uniquely powerful. ”Nobody can deny that the news has a lot more credibility than a commercial,” says Daniel Johnson, president of DWJ, the makers of the Odor-Eaters video. To make their footage more attractive to news directors, VNR producers package their videos with meticulous craft. ”They are very subtle commercials,” says Annette Minkalis, senior vice president of TV at West Glen Communications, which produces and distributes VNRs. ”The client is definitely going to have its name mentioned, but it’s going to have to be done so that it isn’t perceived as a commercial.”
To emphasize the soft-sell approach to the products, VNR producers also devote a great deal of energy to developing effective news ”hooks” and story angles for their releases. ”News directors aren’t stupid,” Minkalis points out. ”They can tell fluff from a story that is really legitimate.” If a major corporation is involved, the VNR usually stresses a business angle. When McDonald’s opened its first outlet in the Soviet Union, Patterson-Partington of Toronto produced a business VNR featuring images of Soviet citizens lining up before the Golden Arches and Muscovites biting into Big Macs; the resultant VNR was shown on 159 American TV stations — and the networks — reaching an estimated 22 million viewers. (In some cases, the VNR footage was edited into network and cable news-bureau reports.) Products that don’t obviously qualify as business news are usually linked to current issues. For example, when StarKist Seafood Co. announced its new line of Dolphin Safe tuna, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide tailored two VNRs to emphasize the story’s animal-rights angle. The two spots, the second of which featured comments from celebrity activist- dolphin lover Morgan Fairchild, were aired on more than 200 stations and reached some 81 million news viewers.
Another popular form of VNR is ”trend,” or ”human-interest,” pieces that serve as upbeat ”kickers” at the end of the news. One memorable Disneyland VNR featured a Maine farmer’s cow that had spots on its side in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. Disney dispatched its in-house production team to shoot the release known as the ”Mickey Moo” VNR. (The enormously successful clip ran on Good Morning America and 69 other stations nationwide.) In another example, the birth of a killer whale in captivity at San Diego’s Sea World in 1988 furnished the tourist attraction with an opportunity to film its own human-interest VNR, which included the actual birth and closed with shots of Sea World employees slapping relieved high-fives. It aired on CNN, ABC’s World News Tonight, and more than a hundred local stations.
If all else fails, producers often develop elaborate visual stunts to make their footage more palatable to news directors. For instance, when Hershey introduced its Kisses with almonds last September, Ketchum Public Relations orchestrated a complex marketing event that involved dropping a 6-foot, 500-pound replica of a Hershey’s Kiss, covered in gold sequins and foil, from the same building in New York’s Times Square where the New Year’s ball is traditionally dropped. According to Carolyn Okin, director of media relations for Ketchum, the VNR’s great visuals immediately sold news directors on the story. Says Okin, ”It really had this ‘Gee-whiz-Molly-did-you-see-that?’ kind of appeal to it.”
While VNR producers are fairly open about their unusual business, news directors tend to be reticent on the subject. ”Most folks will say they don’t use VNRs when what they really mean is that they don’t use one of the prepackaged news stories (in unedited form),” says Bartlett. ”I think an awful lot of video is picked up and cut into stories.” Directors in the field insist they treat VNRs in the same way that print journalists handle press releases. But as Debby Rogers, executive news producer of News 4 in Reno, which occasionally uses VNRs in edited form, explains, ”In a small market that needs to fill airtime, people are probably more likely to throw them on the air without thinking about the consequences.”
Clearly, VNRs can be abused, but regulating them presents daunting legal and constitutional problems. According to the FCC, each TV station is responsible for deciding whether or not to name the supplier of a VNR. Nevertheless, in February 1990, New York attorney Scott Robb requested that the FCC call for mandatory labeling of VNRs under the sponsorship, identification, plugola, and payola rules of the FCC’s Communications Act. FCC staff attorney Amy Zoslov says such a request and VNRs themselves create a new and tricky puzzle. ”We have not had this type of situation presented before,” says Zoslov. ”VNRs are provided free to stations, and the party who provides it doesn’t pay to get it on the air. With VNRs, money doesn’t change hands.” Though news directors aren’t explicitly paid to run VNRs on the air, using them saves stations a considerable amount of money.
”If the station wanted to re-create the VNR it would (have to) spend anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to tens of thousands,” says Robb. ”Under the law, when a station uses material that has intrinsic value from an outside source, it must inform (viewers) of that fact.” Zoslov says, ”Hopefully, the FCC will decide whether or not to issue a ruling on the case within the next six months.”
In the meantime, critics of VNRs view the releases as a progressively threatening influence on the integrity of television news. Says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Foundation Media Center at Columbia University, ”The news organization that uses VNRs loses control over the material it’s presenting on the air. The producers might have goaded someone into making a statement. It’s also perfectly possible to slant a piece of footage by making a product look more attractive.”
In the final analysis, Dennis speculates that the proliferation of VNRs may force the public to become more knowledgeable about the news process. ”They require people to be more aware of what they’re watching — more alert,” he says. “With VNRs it’s definitely ‘Let the receiver beware.”’ In other words, when it comes to judging their actual news value, VNRs, like rotten sneakers, should be approached with caution.
THESE GURUS FOR HIRE
Way back in 1948, two tawny-haired 19-year-old twins named Alva and Alice Anderson first appeared on local TV and radio shows, championing the simplicity of home permanents. The sisters were two of the first ”experts” made for TV, hired by a company to pitch products on news and entertainment programs, and they proved so good at it that they and their products (Toni Home Permanents) became part of the language. Their hit ”media tour” also sparked a thousand TV marketing campaigns.
In the ’90s, the proliferation of morning-TV home shows and talk radio is giving new life to the old art of product plugging. Although video news releases are becoming marketers’ favored promotional devices, corporate pitchmen continue to infiltrate programs, and their patter is slicker than ever. ”They have to know how to bring a commercial credit on the air in a subtle way, as part of normal conversation,” says Daniel J. Edelman, who launched the Toni Twins and today manages Edelman Public Relations. The unofficial bible of the spokesperson industry, The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons, lists 1,400 groups and personalities available for radio and TV interviews, ranging from household-cleaning authorities to experts on romance (though some of these experts operate independently, most are admittedly affiliated with corporations). The morning chat shows seem most susceptible to their charms.
The Pitcher: Chef Donovan Jon Fandre, Microwave Master
Who foots the bill: Del Monte Vegetable Classics
Actual experience: Host of PBS’ The Microwave Master cooking series and author of I Got More Time for Lovin’ Since I Got My Microwave Oven (self-published)
The stunt: On the April 8 broadcast of KABC’s A.M. Los Angeles, Fandre presented a full menu with Oriental stir fry and Maine lobster.
The pitch: One item Fandre prepared was a side dish made with Del Monte Vegetable Classics. ”My biggest fear,” he confesses, ”is that the host will taste the sponsor’s product and say, ‘That’s just awful.”’
The pitcher: John D. Harrison, Ice Cream Tasting Expert
Who foots the bill: Dreyer’s Grand ice cream (called Edy’s Grand ice cream east of the Rockies)
Actual experience: Flavor developer for Dreyer’s for the past nine years. Taste buds are currently insured by the company for $250,000.
The stunt: In an April 1 appearance on KRON-TV’s 5 p.m. news in San Francisco, Harrison demonstrated the science of ice cream tasting.
The pitch: Harrison is generally introduced as a flavor developer employed by Dreyer’s. Dreyer’s ice cream cartons form the centerpiece of his presentation and his lab coat also features the Dreyer’s logo.
The pitcher: Marie Rama, Romance Expert and Master Party Planner
Who foots the bill: Korbel champagne
Actual experience: Trained as a pastry chef and cake decorator at the Boston bakery the Window Shop
The stunt: On a December airing of KREM-TV’s KREM 2 News in Spokane, Wash., Rama advised viewers on how to prepare for unexpected guests during the holidays.
The Pitch: Rama’s main serving suggestion was to uncork a bottle of chilled champagne, which she demonstrated by dramatically opening a magnum of Korbel.