Paid placement is a dirty little secret of advertising and public relations. Scott G explores a few of the subversive, sneaky, snaky, snarky, sleazy and very profitable methods of putting your product in front of the public in just the right light.

Scott G lurks behind a micOn the Internet, we all know the difference between banner ads and editorial. On radio and television, we all know the difference between commercials and content. In magazines and newspapers, we all know the difference between ads and articles. In news broadcasts, we all know the difference between opinion and fact.

Or do we?

When Paula Abdul holds a Coke on American Idol, we know it’s because a promotional fee has been paid. But it doesn’t stop there. Her clothing, shoes, hair, makeup, lip gloss, eyelashes, and jewelry didn’t just appear there by whim or accident.

The same thing can be said for ______ TV and movie personalities. Fill-in-the-blank with: A) some; B) many; C) most; D) all.

There’s the problem: we don’t know what appears on screen through free choice and what appears there because of a marketing decision and the exchange of some filthy lucre.

In prior articles, I’ve spoken of our living in a pay-to-say society. If you have the money, your point-of-view can be stated over and over in front of millions. You could even be making things up, as on “Fox News.” The facts are not important. Commerce is important.

How many times have you enjoyed a book or CD review without considering how the selections were made? My sixth music album is being released this month and I asked about submitting it for review to one of the popular DJ-oriented glossy magazines. “No, we don’t buy ads in that company’s publications so there’s no point sending them the album,” was the distributor’s reply.

Wait. Are reviews of new albums actually miniature ads? Perhaps. Even if a reviewer’s opinion isn’t influenced, the fact that the deck is stacked in terms of the selection of product seems to go against the very nature of a “free press.”

Is the same thing true of many other “editorial” sections of newspapers, magazines, e-zines, radio shows, and TV news? When I’ve raised this issue amongst marketing and public relations professionals, the reaction has been along the lines of “Scott, stop being naive.”

As long as we’re had popular music, we’ve had payola. Recent lawsuits by Eliot Spitzer’s office have alerted the public to the practice of radio conglomerates accepting money to play non-hits often enough to have them called hits. Yet it’s the innocent recording artists who were named in most of the news stories, not the executives at the stations. Why? Because the executives are going to be buying ads in the future.

Possibilities for Hidden Persuasion
Okay, now consider other forms of “editorial content” and take a moment to speculate on the possibility of some guidance from the “hands of commerce.” Story on political candidates. Round-up of the latest electronic gadgets. Descriptions of new kitchen appliances. Article on housing developments in your area. Automobile reviews. Stories dealing with new pharmaceutical products.

See any potential problem areas? I do. Working in advertising, marketing and public relations, I have watched some very smarmy deals go down.

What About This Column?
Nope. I’m not for sale. But as a human being, I sure as hell can be influenced. And in today’s world, how can you tell the difference?

Photo illustration by Phil Hatten Design.

[tags]G-Man, Gman, gman marketing, Scott G, Communication Nation, advertising, marketing, ad rants, paid placement, public relations[/tags]