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.''