Sep 1 1993

When Is a Commercial Not a Commercial?

When It's on Noncommercial TV

A luxury car tools along a mountain road. A Citicorp bankcard gleams behind the slogan, “Anyhow. Anywhere. Anytime. Right Now.” Chase Manhattan advises viewers: “We believe that helping our customers realize their dreams is the best investment we can make.”

Typical commercials? No — because they’re on “noncommercial” TV.

According to PBS, these are not commercials, but “enhanced underwriter acknowledgments.” According to the Communications Act of 1934, they may well be illegal.

The law forbids noncommercial stations to accept compensation for broadcasting messages that “promote any service, facility or product offered by any person who is engaged in such offering for profit.”

But since the era of deregulation beginning in the late ’70s, this law has been virtually ignored. In March 1984, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially “relaxed” the noncommercial policy to allow public broadcasters to expand or “enhance” the scope of donor and underwriter “acknowledgments” to include such things as “value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service,” and corporate logos or slogans which “identify and do not promote” [emphasis in original].

In a 1986 public notice, the FCC explained that “enhanced underwriting” would offer “significant potential benefits to public broadcasting in terms of attracting additional business support.”

The “benefits” of making a public broadcasting system increasingly dependent on the same corporate sponsors that fund commercial TV seem dubious. Critics charge that corporate underwriting has led PBS stations to avoid controversial issues and focus too much on programming aimed at upscale audiences, to the neglect of the public they were originally intended to serve.

To sustain the illusion that dependence on corporate sponsorship does not undermine the public stations’ noncommercial mission, the FCC wants to maintain a distinction between messages that “identify” and those that “promote.” The 1984 order forbids announcements that contain an “inducement to buy” or a “call to action” — e.g., “Try Product Q.” But how meaningful is the distinction between identification and promotion in the modern era of corporate “image management”?

PBS‘s “enhanced acknowledgments” are commercials “in every single way,” Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan told Extra!. “Image advertising,” in which sponsors “try to link their name and logo (and usually a picture) with a feel-good policy or program, has been the rule, not the exception, for the last 10 years for major corporations.” In some circumstances, Savan says, “image advertising is shown to be more effective” than advertising that focuses on product attributes or comparing one brand to others.

And PBS knows, despite its public rhetoric, that corporations see underwriting as just a different kind of advertising. “PBS is a different way for companies to get into the mind of the consumer,” Steven Bass, PBS‘s director of corporate support, told Fortune (4/22/91).

Public Broadcasting Marketing (PBM), a company representing public television and radio stations around the country, actively touts the “sales potential” of public TV’s children’s programming to corporations. PBM president Keith Erling Thompson sent a letter to Advertising Age (3/1/93) complaining about being left out of a “Marketing to Kids” supplement.

“Through Public Broadcasting Marketing, corporations can place messages adjacent to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Shining Time Station and Barney, tapping the sales potential of these acclaimed programs,” Thompson boasted. “More and more corporations recognize PBM’s unique, high-impact environment.”


News Goes Better With Pepsi

(from Extra!, May/June 1990)

When is a commercial not a commercial? When it’s on noncommercial TV, of course.

Take the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour‘s segment on “Gastro Glasnost” (4/13/90). After showing a pre-glasnost, Soviet-mocking commercial for Cheetos, Doritos and Ruffles as a prelude, the program joined a Soviet delegation touring American food processors.

“At the Omaha, Nebraska Frito-Lay factory, this delegation of Soviet food industry officials was full of praise for the product,” MacNeil/Lehrer‘s correspondent noted. “They’ve never seen such a fine product,” the interpreter gushed, as Frito-munching Soviets filled the screen. Later, the delegation went to a soft-drink bottler, where a Soviet official praised the corporation serving up Pepsis and Mountain Dews to his thirsty comrades: “With the Pepsi-Cola Company we’ve been working since 1973…. The example of that company could give inspiration to other American companies.”

What’s wrong with this picture? All of the above products are manufactured by Pepsico, a MacNeil/Lehrer underwriter that already gets to plug its wares at the beginning of every NewsHour.