You know that bubbly toy expert you just saw on one of the TV morning shows?

She’s a shill.

From NPR’s On the Media:

As product placement becomes pervasive in TV and movies, the line between content continues to blur. It turns out that even TV news is getting into the game of embedded advertising, often crossing the line into the illegal practice of “payola”, when “experts” tout products they are being paid to promote with no disclosure.

The segment featured an interview with Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi about his recent piece headlined “Despite law against it, stealth commercials frequently masquerade as TV news.”


Alison Rhodes is passionate about child safety, and in hundreds of TV news interviews, the self-styled “Safety Mom” has talked up products designed to increase it. During a segment on WTTG’s morning news last year, for example, Rhodes showed off a home electronic monitor made by ADT and a backpack with a built-in alarm known as the iSafe bag.

“It’s amazing,” she gushed to Fox5 host Tony Perkins about the backpack. “It really is amazing.”

What neither Rhodes nor WTTG mentioned to viewers was this: The companies Rhodes mentioned on the air had paid her to plug their products. In effect, Rhodes’s appearance was a kind of stealth commercial dressed up as a traditional product-review interview.

Representative sample:

And it’s not just local affiliates that broadcast these ads in sheep’s clothing – network programs like NBC’s Today show also participate in the plugapalooza:

A few weeks after her appearance on WTTG, Rhodes was on the “Today” show, talking about the same products she spoke about on Fox5. “Isn’t it amazing?” she said of the backpack as co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford looked on.

The media companies that orchestrate these appearances routinely say they disclose the sponsor relationships involved. But the media outlets tend to be less transparent.

To summarize: Caveat viewer.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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