Advertising as Payola: Who really owns CNN?
Wed Oct 19, 2005 at 07:22:30 PM PDT
So I'm watching CNN today, taking it easy, putting my feet up, and as Anderson Vanderbilt-Cooper does his best to fulfill his new News-Rockstar persona by clambering over rusted out New Orleans cars and digging crusty beads out of rubble, something struck me... actually, it's struck me a few times over recent months, but it struck harder today.
Every ad break features ads for companies that make no products I can buy.
And I'm not just talking a few of them, I'm talking loads. Tons. Something close to a majority, even.
Let's roll through a few examples:
BOEING: This ad tells me how Boeing is working to ensure that the future is wonderful, because they're, I dunno, creating planes that will fly in space or something. So I went to Boeing's website to see if they had anything I could buy now, but alas, they don't. I did, however, find reference to programs such as their commercial airplane division, integrated defense systems, Boeing aircraft trading, airport technology, and something with the somewhat dubious title of Phantom Works. As much as I thought how much fun it might be to set up an account for MyBoeingFleet, turns out it's only for airplane owners, operators, and repairers. Which makes me wonder what possible return could Boeing get out of advertising to me?
DOW CHEMICAL: This ad takes great pains to tell me how Dow is awesome because they make the chemicals that everything in the world needs to be produced. Which is great, but what the hell do I care? I'm not in the market for Ethylene Oxide, nor Vinyl Acetate Monomer, and as much as Dow's `craft products' page tells me I can get a great deal on Styrofoam to make something called a `pumpkin block tower', I'm not entirely sure how much of a spike in Styrofoam business the company would need to generate from their ads to make them worth the money spent running them during CNN's prime time. Dow does, however, spend millions ($2.1m in 1997) on lobbyists. In fact, the company Greenpeace named 'polluter of the century' has over 25 full-time lobbyists in DC, and another 17 in Texas, where many of their plants are located. They seem to have no trouble getting whatever they want from our politicians, so the question remains... why are they advertising to me?
LOCKHEED MARTIN: Watching this ad made me feel really good about being in North America, and about how Lockheed Martin is ensuring that we all remain free. But when I went to their website to thank them by purchasing some of their fine products, there was nothing I could buy! They list their customers as the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the Social Security Administration, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the governments of Japan, Turkey, Chile and China, and the US Postal Service... but nowhere does it list `me'. So I looked deeper, at their products page... hmm... I guess if I save up I could maybe afford a C-141 Starlifter, or have the LM boys come around and turn my basement into a Center of Command Operations, with my very own Command Readiness Trainer System. And you know, that Compact Kinetic Energy Missile they're pushing would look REALLY good on the Prius... But here's the bottom line: Lockheed Martin sells nothing I can buy. And thus I again wonder... why are they spending money advertising to me?
BRITISH PETROLEUM: BP is great! How do I know this? Because they tell me so! According to this ad, which features a barely legibile `everyman' wondering where the next great advance in fuel will come from once oil runs out, BP leads the way because they plan to invest $1b in expanding natural gas production next year. Actually, when I think about that, it's completely irrelevant, especially since my car doesn't run on natural gas AND natural gas has risen in price by about 6000% in the last, I dunno, three days? Regardless, I wanted to tell BP that I was down with their bold plans to make lots of money on a natural resource, but then it dawned on me... there are no BP gas stations in the US! Oh sure, they have a stake in Amoco and Arco, but neither of those was being advertised on CNN - just BP.
So, once again... Why is a company that I can't buy anything from spending money advertising on CNN to me?
Update: As others below have pointed out, it seems there are BP gas stations in the US now. I'll concede the point, though their website doesn't make mention of them.
The UNITED STATES TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATION: The TV ad for the USTA wants me to know that I can make a whole whack of investment profit if I invest in their member companies and tell the government to update the nation's telecom laws "to encourage market-based competition for communications." I guess they'd prefer I don't use a little independent thought and realize that such a move would mean my phone bill would go through the roof, but either way, I wanted to reward their advertising spend by buying something from them... like Adelphia. Alas, they sell nothing I can purchase. I could potentially join their association if I wanted to, but I'm not sure they're my kind of social crowd. So again I ask... Why are they advertising to me?
CONOCOPHILLIPS: Now this was a weird one. After a fairly generic ad that seemed to be saying how wonderful ConocoPhilips was for selling energy, or something (it was unclear what they do, much like the old ad that would tell me to `try the Purple Pill' but not tell me what it does), when I accidentally typed "canocophillips" into my Firefox URL window, it Google-forwarded me to a pdf file telling me about the effluent monitoring requirements of a Californian Conocophillips `tank farm', complete with lists of acceptable mercury, silver, lead and arsenic that can be pumped into the water supply. I figured that wasn't CP's actual website, so I corrected my typo and put a .com at the end, and lo and behold, I was right. So what can I buy from ConocoPhillips? Not a lot. I can go to one of the many gas stations they own, but then again, not once in the ad did the parent company mention those brands they own, nor encourage me to use them. What they were seemingly advertising was how awesome the corporate HQ is. So I'm baffled... why advertise to me?
Of course, there have been other advertisers like these that I've noticed on CNN in the past, like the one a few weeks back that seemed to be telling me, without actually saying the words, that they'd be an awesome company to buy a nuclear reactor from. Another doozy was the Royal Saud Investment Group, which was advertised about a year ago, when the Saudi royal family was copping a lot of flack for their close friendship with the President, and terrorists, and not necessarily in that order. As reported by Air America's Randi Rhodes, the ad basically ran along the lines of... "We're Saudi Arabia... We love you!"
It would have been hilarious if not for what was behind it. Around the time that ad started running, which had been very critical of Saudi Arabia, suddenly stopped discussing the Saudi royals. They stopped criticizing Saudi Arabia's lack of democracy, and their continual raising of oil prices, and their torture of prisoners. They no longer mentioned the talk, pre-election, that the Saudi Prince had told George W. Bush that they'd lower gas prices just before the November 2004 election. It was as if the words "we love you" had convinced CNN that Saudi Arabia really did have a boner for every American.
If you've ever seen the excellent documentary, The Corporation, you'll recall a story about a pair of Fox reporters, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, that had exposed that Monsanto were pushing cow steroids as a means of expanding production for dairy farms. The udders, they reported, would expand to the point where the cow was in agony. Much of the time, the udders would bleed, and infections and pus would leak into the milk itself. For some cows, their udders dragged along the ground, they were so big. And what was worse, the steroids would then leech through into the milk itself, to be fed to our children at school.
Fox demanded the report be altered some 30+ times before it finally ran, demanding words such as "cancer" be switched for "health concerns", etc. The journalists refused, stating that this was important news, only to be told, "We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We'll decide what the news is. NEWS IS WHAT WE SAY IT IS."
Eventually, Fox killed the piece altogether, and as one of the journalists recounted, she was told that Monsanto spent tens of millions of dollars a year advertising their products on Fox, and so there was no desire at all to piss them off, nor retain the journalists in question. The journalists went to court to fight their unfair dismissal, but Fox was let off by the judge because, and I quote, "It isn't illegal to lie on TV," which meant they weren't officially whistleblowers, and thus had no case.
I caught up with one of those reporters, Jane Akre, a veteran of several decades of TV journalism, at the Sundance Film Festival when The Corporation played there in 2004, and I asked where she was working now. She replied that she hasn't really worked since. "Who would hire me now? They know they can't make me shut up - so I'm done." Then she asked ME about freelance corporate copywriting! I was gobsmacked - a trailblazing woman who should be celebrated and iconized was asking me for work.
And that, in my opinion, tells me all I need to know about the above advertisers and why they're running non-stop ads on CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, Fox News... because when the ads are running, the criticism and investigation stops.
See for yourself - start taking notes of the ads you see on CNN. The next time you see an ad telling you how great it is that GE makes weaponry for the Department of Defense, mark it down. The next time you see a defense contractor advertise products you can't buy - mark it down. Because these are the companies that REALLY own CNN.
A quick look around the net will tell you WHY it's important for these companies to shut CNN up. Dow is STILL Refusing to properly compensate the dead and disfigured after the Bhopal disaster, Boeing has accepted liability for the Alaskan air crash that killed 88 people in 2000, while hiding sneaky sub-contracting scams on defense projects, and recent mass sackings haven't helped their image, while Lockheed Martin spends more time in court than your average DA for their corruption and kickbacks. BP and ConocoPhillips could do without any further discussion of the fact that gas prices have doubled, and CNN seems to no longer be interested in that topic, or if they are, they blame it on hurricanes, even though prices were skyrocketing for months earlier.
Now, some may say that the reason these ads are running is because they drive up the share price or the companies in question, so I looked them up:
ConocoPhillips up 75% since Nov 04
Dow Chmical same as Nov 04
Boeing Air up 40% since Nov 04
Lockheed Martin up 10% since Nov 04
British Petroleum up 10% since Nov 04
Considering gas prices are nearly double what they were a year ago, and we're engaged in TWO wars, these share prices are pretty dire, which I would think would disprove the 'advertising as a share price motivator' theory. Which only really leaves one viable theory: that the ads pay for journalists to look the other way.
The advertising of defense contractors and energy giants on news networks is nothing short of payola. And it must be stopped - NOW.
UPDATE! Thanks to Elise for pointing out the ads from Kerr-McGee, a company that calles themselves "a leader in oil and natural gas exploration and production", in their CNN ads, yet sells nothing any of us can buy - in fact, they don't list ANY products on their website at all.
Additionally, thanks to CakeStick for pointing out the oh-so-regular Tyco ads, which tell us how vital a part of "our world" they are, despite being based in the tax haven of Bermuda. Next time I need a "safety needle [that] provides engineering controls that maximize clinician safety without sacrificing clinical flexibility", I'll be sure to give them a call. Just don't talk about former owner Dennis Koslowski's $6000 gold-laced shower curtains if there'a TV camera on you, Mr Blitzer.
Further Update: I decided to do a little further research, to see how entwined these companies are with the corporate side of CNN, and what I found wasn't surprising.
* Former CNN correspondent joins Boeing Florida: Brian Nelson, a former CNN correspondent and veteran anchor, has been appointed director of communications for The Boeing Company's Florida operations based at the Kennedy Space Center.
* Boeing Unveils High-Speed Global Communications Service - CNN, Loral, Alenia, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, CNBC to Participate
Then there was this blurb about Kerr-McGee's advertising on their website, complete with links to the ads themselves, which made me vomit a little in my mouth:
Kerr-McGee has seven television commercials that air on network and cable programming in the United States. The 30-second spots air on CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press and various news programs on FOX News, CNN and MSNBC.
Environment: The environmental spot highlights the company's long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship, as well as Kerr-McGee's use of innovative spar technologies to provide the United States with vital energy resources.
Uinta Basin: Kerr-McGee places priority on caring for the environment as it explores for and produces oil and natural gas. This television spot features the company’s U.S. onshore operations in Utah’s Uinta Basin, and describes how the company focuses on being a good neighbor to the environment.
Yuck. Clearly neither of those are intended to push up share prices, they're nothing more than 'don't hate us for destroying the environment' propaganda pieces.
Remember Silkwood. Peace out.