Blending advertising into content is a troubling problem for struggling newspapers. This insight brought to you by Grandpa Stajich’s Old School Root Beer.We’ll never know exactly where things got away from us. It might have been the moment that we decided that “rock videos” were a contemporary art form and not commercials for CDs. It could have been the folksy popularity of “gimme caps”, the cheap headwear that was free in exchange for wearing a corporate logo everywhere you went. It might go as far back as Jack Benny and his troop of celebrity players participating in commercials that appeared to be part of his radio and TV shows, a fanciful device that evolved into the free-standing video sludge we now accept as “infomercials.”The portion of the LA Times front page advertisement on April 9th meant to look like a news story was bordered with a big black line that enclosed what unquestionably was an ad for the new TV series Southland. So, as a piece of covert advertising, it was poorly camouflaged. To honestly assert that readers struggled to identify the page one “story” as advertising might also mean that millions of TV viewers are not quite certain Chuck Norris is attempting to sell them that exercise machine he touts late at night.Full disclosure: This honorable newspaper you are reading right now generously agreed to swap some ad space for a recent production of my theater writings, “An Evening with a Folding Table” in exchange for a same size ad for The Mirror that appeared in the programs for that production. That transaction was honest and clear, and I’m open to working the same deal with the LA Times in the future. I already have a photo which, like the artwork for the Southland ad, shows me hovering over a dead body… although it’s the body of a possum that inexplicably croaked near my garage office.To some extent the ruckus about the LA Times running advertising that emulates content is too little too late, although, it does provide us with a platform to discuss just how far we’re willing to go with such content bending in the name of saving America’s newspapers. Was the Times’ decision to give a front page ad the appearance of content a serious set-back to newspaper integrity in general? A partial answer might be found in examining that same day’s Times front page a little closer. A preview of stories inside that edition was also printed on the front page across from the Southland ad. The tease lines in that preview concerned a story on whether some amount of baby fat was good for you, whether there were scams disguised as videos on YouTube, and a story about a new CBS murder mystery series. This was a preview of the rock-hard news awaiting readers inside the April 9th LA Times.But rather than more hand wringing over big city dailies and their efforts to lure readers, we might instead consider the recent business over bottled water for Los Angeles County supervisors. In that event someone got paid to replace the product labels on bottled water for the supervisors’ weekly board meetings with “individualized” labels, thus avoiding any product placement issues when those meetings were televised on public access. Silly? Remember that press conference that went all around the world the day Kobe Bryant and his wife faced the media regarding sexual assault charges against Bryant stemming from an incident with another woman in Colorado in 2003? There were prominent water bottles, labels clearly visible, on the table in front of all parties. This was a big time PR event orchestrated by top-shelf handlers, who may have promised some synergy to a certain water bottler. I wondered aloud about that in this column and I probably sounded nutty then, too.There is a new 21st century weave of advertising and content in all media platforms, and some of it is impressively oafish. One can go searching online for a news account concerning starvation or genocide and then discover that you must read the content as blinking ads and burping audio clips yelp for attention like ignored children all around it. Say what you will about the LA Times Southland ad, it wasn’t like trying to discern who is doing the killing in Darfur while an online ad barks at you about refinancing your home.With the possible exception of books, almost every useful or entertaining piece of content we seek now demands that our eyeballs and our sensibilities continually be on high alert for advertising. We don’t help this situation by happily bearing product logos on our clothing as “fashion” or allowing our great stadiums and baseball parks and theaters to bear product names. Old grainy black and white movies never required the personal labor of enduring product placements. And, if you will, old grainy daily newspapers used to make it easier to tell an ad from a story. But now, that’s our job. When a major newspaper tries new covert integrations, we hear more than just our own heavy sigh. Now there’s an audible squeaking sound as credibility bends. And to badly paraphrase the line from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, “If it bends, it’s squeaky but maybe for now just a little funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.”
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