On the Media: A plea for honesty in paid TV pitches


To that long list of buyer-bewares this Christmas season, it’s time to add another: television pitches from so-called consumer and “lifestyle” experts.

These TV spokespeople may seem peppy, even vaguely knowledgeable. But chances are they did little, if any, research to find you the best bargain or the highest-quality merchandise. They’re arriving in your living room because someone paid them to sell anything from a soda maker to that new man-scaping device.

Paid promotions: The On the Media column in the Dec. 22 Calendar about the failure of TV shows to properly identify paid promotions said that one of the programs that hosted lifestyle “expert” Sean McEwen was “San Diego This Morning” on XETV-TV San Diego 6. The name of the show was “San Diego Living.” —

TV “magazine” and news programs putting these so-called experts on the air typically provide little, if any, disclosure to viewers about their commercial raison d’air-time. The federal agencies that monitor this sort of activity require clear notification of commercial pitches, but the disclaimers are as rare as liberal yakkers on AM radio.

This feels all too familiar to anyone living in this age of unrelenting salesmanship, when product placements show up on “Project Runway,” “The Biggest Loser” and “ American Idol.”


Companies like the camouflaged advertising because unlike traditional commercials, viewers don’t usually fast forward or mute their way through the pitches.

On the Media has documented multiple cases in 2010 in which news programs degraded themselves by mixing in paid pitches for cars, toys and, in one case, a hospital, without letting viewers know they were watching pay-to-play TV.

It should be of no surprise, then, that veiled salesmanship charges right into the midst of the holiday buying season. Several companies arrange tours to bring self-styled consumer and “lifestyle” experts to local TV stations around America.

One of the promotion firms is Miller/Weiner Communications of New Jersey, which let companies know that it was sending no less than six spokespeople (or, in one case, a team of two) out to the local TV hustings in November and December. Companies could buy TV access in up to 30 cities. Or they could pay, city by city, to get their wares on local TV.

Most of the companies opted to have their product displayed for the entire national tour, which could cost them from $3,750 to nearly $21,000 (depending on the number of cities, and viewers, delivered,) according to a Miller/Weiner executive. That probably seemed like a relatively modest investment, given the rhapsodic reviews Miller/Weiner spokespeople deliver.

Sean McEwen, a former “lifestyle correspondent” for E! Entertainment Television, just finished a tour of a couple dozen cities. He also stopped at the nationally syndicated “Daily Buzz” program.

For four to eight minutes at each stop, McEwen delivered on his theme — holiday gift ideas for guys. He whipped through promotions for American Express online shopping, Bulova watches, the SodaStream soda maker, a “fogless” shower mirror, a manly flashlight and more.

Many of the hosts called McEwen their “friend.” All seemed to ooh and aah over the products. None that I saw asked a probing question, wondered about competing brands or suggested even the merest hint of skepticism — as one might expect if these segments really aimed to put the consumer front and center.

What the sponsors bought, instead, was pure, unadulterated love. “Guys always love watches, no matter how many they have,” McEwen said in an appearance on a Sacramento talk show. Maybe that’s because he was pitching Bulova, which he deemed “super fantastic … the world’s most accurate watch.” He rhapsodized about how the SodaStream soda maker was flying off store shelves. “You turn tap water into soda in seconds with no cleanup!”

Barry D. Miller, a partner in the firm that put together the tour, said his company makes it very clear to local TV stations that spokespeople talk about products they’ve been paid to pitch. In most cases, Miller/Weiner then pays the stations to get the pitches on the air. “That has become the industry standard at this point on a lot of these lifestyle programs,” Miller said.

But when I watched clips of a couple of the magazine programs that aired McEwen’s appearances — “ San Diego This Morning” and “Virginia This Morning” — I didn’t hear the anchors say anything about the segments being sponsored. If a notice went on the screen with the information, it wasn’t during the segment.

Stephen Hayes, general manager of WTVR, the CBS affiliate in Richmond, Va., that hosted McEwen, told me it would put a “significant onus” on his station to figure out every expert who had been paid to deliver their message. I told him it didn’t seem that hard. If someone shows up gushing about a fogless mirror, they probably aren’t doing it for the simple good of consumerkind.

I called a couple of executives at XETV-TV San Diego 6, which hosted McEwen on its morning show, but did not hear back about whether disclaimers typically are aired. The show is run by the news division, so I can’t imagine why they would want to put on commercial pitches without making it clear to viewers that’s what they were doing. Maybe they think the salesmanship is obvious. But the practice strikes me as a credibility killer.

Not that any disclosure amounts to full disclosure. On several other programs in which McEwen aired his gift tips in recent days, viewers would have to watch to the end of the segments to see a disclaimer on the screen. And that message typically said Miller/Weiner sponsored the piece.

Only a fraction of the audience would probably understand exactly what that means: that a bunch of large companies paid their way on to the air, without having to buy a traditional ad.

It would be much clearer and more revealing to the audience to post a notice on-screen throughout the pitch segments — not later, when many people might have tuned out. The disclaimers should name each company paying for its time in the limelight. These other shows might take note how the “Daily Buzz” handled McEwen, with a “sponsored by” graphic on-screen, clearly naming each product that bought its way into the feature.

Miller said he would have “no problem” with that kind of approach. “It’s up to the stations. We would do what they want,” Miller said. “We are not trying to hide anything. Our clients are aware that they have to be open about it. I guess the stations thought this was enough.”

That’s my small holiday wish: that the people routinely selling to us on TV tell us who is paying their way.

Twitter: latimesrainey