Elmo Pushes Pizza! Hey, Sesame Workshop and Co. Stop Counting Kids Dollars

CNN Money reports that Elmo will soon by promoting pizza. A new toy via Mattel will be “an Elmo doll holding a pizza, and the pizza talks and sings along with Elmo. The toy is expected to retail for $19.99.”

We think the folks at Sesame Workshop need to rethink what “Elmo’s World” should be like. Is it one that further commercializes childhood and pushes junk food, all to help bolster the Workshop’s bottom line? Shouldn’t companies that benefit from federal funding and public television distribution adhere to some higher level of conduct? Licensing of Elmo and other public broadcasting related products for children require a serious set of federal and PBS safeguards. We hope Gary Knell and company listen. Congress surely should, as it considers public broadcasting (PBS) funding.

Billion Dollars Bribery: As presidential candidates prepare to raise and spend $1 B on TV Ads for ‘08, it’s time for digital era reform

Advertising Age reports that U.S. presidential candidates are expected to spend $1 billion buying TV spots for the 2008 race. What this means, of course, is that our political leaders will be selling bits of themselves to well-heeled donors and special interests. How can we have a democracy that addresses our most serious problems when the very forces likely contributing to them are helping foot the TV ad costs? We can’t, even in this age of direct contributions via the Net. The big bucks raised are ultimately bribes from folks representing Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Chamber of Commerce, and Hollywood.

The emerging new media platforms of broadband, mobile, and digital TV will be the methods of choice for delivering political marketing messages. Personalized style communications sent to digital video recorders, iPods, cell phones, along with “Second Life” style virtual press conferences, will soon replace traditional broadcast TV advertising. We need a law requiring free access on such platforms for all candidates (which would be accompanied by refinements in campaign finance limits). In a media world without communications scarcity ( such as with old media style broadcast TV) there is no reason to continue the “pay us for access to voter eyeball” type of media industry shenanigans.

Failure to address the problem of political communication access to the digital media will only result in the old system shaping how new media addresses our elections. It will be a pay-per-voter system where both the gatekeepers of old (Fox, Disney, Comcast) and new (AT&T, Verizon, Google) charge what the traffic will be forced to pay. A $1B tab for 2008 will be seen as a quaintly modest affair, as new media outlets reap many more future political profits (and power).

Here’s an excerpt from Ad Age: “Amid mouthwatering visions of more than $1 billion in spending on the most wide-open race since the TV era began, stations will have to devise some way to handle the rush when close to two dozen candidates come knocking at the same time… Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media, said advertising could well start in force this summer, with candidates trying to introduce or establish themselves early. Despite the early start, time is still an issue. “This kind of wide-open race is unprecedented, and there is only so much [ad] time,” said Jim Boyer, president and general manager of Des Moines station WHO-TV, a CBS affiliate.”

“TV Stations Prepare for $1 Billion Presidential Ad Onslaught
Dozens of Candidates Create Most Wide-Open Race Since TV Era Began.” Ira Teinowitz. Ad Age. January 29, 2007

The AEI-Brookings Joint

As we note in our book, there is an endless supply of academics and private scholars who engage in the communications policymaking field. Usually, most academics work for industry hire and supply–surprise–what is deemed intellectual support for corporate political agendas. Missing always is a clear statement of who is funding them. A November paper by two well-known researchers at the “AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies,” now being hailed by anti network neutrality supporters, attempts to undermine the effort to restore non-discrimination safeguards to U.S. broadband networks. Messrs Hahn and Litan acknowledge in a cover footnote that they “have consulted for telecommunications and information technology companies on issues discussed in this paper.” They do not actually list such consultancies. But a glaring omission is the failure to identify who helps fund the Joint Center they co-direct. They include AT&T (and its predecessor SBC), Verizon and the super media monopoly lobbying shop Wiley, Rein and Fielding (which has represented BellSouth, Verizon and others). Such conflicts of interest should have been prominently displayed by the authors, as well as full disclosure of their consulting contracts. We note that pro-net neutrality firm Interactive Corp. is also a Joint Center supporter. But how much each gives and the terms of the grant must be disclosed in any related research. Research from the Joint Center, and all other scholarly and advocacy groups, should clearly and prominently identify their funders and their related political positions on the issues raised within the main body of the paper.
The public deserves better from the folks at the Joint Center.

For an example of the paper’s reception, go to Forbes.com and see the 1/24 online piece entitled “Is Network Neutrality a Myth?”

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We wish the editors and reporters covering telecommunications would follow the money–and ask all the interested parties who foots their bill. They would find–with academics especially–so many financial links as to wonder whether these so-called experts aren’t violating some scholarly code of ethics. Take today’s psuedo scholarly attack on network neutrality by David Farber, Michael Katz and Christopher S. Woo. No where in the piece does it state that both Professors Katz and Yoo have taken money from the cable industry. Such funding led–natch–to industry supportive research pieces. Disclosure of such financial ties is required to be prominently displayed in such a piece, so readers can better place in context what is being said. Super cable monopoly Comcast hired UC Berkeley’s Katz in 2003 to produce research which placed the industry in favorable light. Comcast, of course, opposes network neutrality [I cover the role of Katz and other communications -academics-for -industry hire in my new book, btw]. Professor Yoo worked for the cable lobby NCTA last year to write a net neutrality study as well. Even Davd Farber should have disclosed he has spoken under the banner of the Verizon Foundation at Carnegie Mellon.

The Post’s editors must have asked if contributors have any conflicts? If so, what exactly did Professors Farber, Katz, and Yoo reply? We urge the Post to publish any such submissions. Moreover, the Post op-ed page must now seek response from parties who don’t have a money trail littering their “scholarship.”

Sources: “Study Slams Cooper’s Cable Research.” Multichannel News. 8/26/03

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Ad Age editorial attacks my "Digital Destiny" book

Trade publications are designed to be part of an industry’s political self-defense system. So it isn’t surprising that Advertising Age has an editorial in its new issue attacking my “Brandwashing” critique. Interestingly, it avoids addressing the many facts I cite in the book, including how advertisers are using brain research, virtual reality, and a marketing is everywhere/all time “360 degree” approach [the 360 term is what the ad industry calls its new strategy]. It’s interesting that the magazine’s editorial writers–probably on behalf of the industry–don’t want the public to ask the serious questions which are raised in the book. Here’s how they rationalize data collection propelled interactive, virtual reality-driven, personalized ads targeting us via PC, mobile, and TV:

“Making marketing more effective is what marketers are paid to do. And as long as they operate within legal and ethical bounds, they should be allowed to. While privacy is a legitimate concern, there’s something to be said for targeted ad messages. What would the average person rather be subjected to, an annoying random pop-up or an ad message tailored specifically for her? (Numerous studies have answered that seemingly obvious question.)

Finally, what consumers and activists seem to forget is that the only reason media content is free or affordable for so many is that major corporations foot the majority of the infrastructure and production bills. Then again, we could turn everything over to the government, which would no doubt create wholesome content at minimal cost to the taxpayer, all the while respecting consumer privacy.”

Have no fear—as we promote the book we will raise all these issues: privacy, manipulation, stealth marketing, immersive applications, brain research, vulnerable consumers. That’s why we are going to the Hill as well!
Source: “Brandwashing? Not Even Close.” Advertising Age. January 15, 2007

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The Brandwashing of America: Micropersuasion in the Digital Era. Adapted from my new book, Digital Destiny

(The following commentary was published by Advertising Age online, Jan. 9, 2007)

‘Digital Destiny’ Author Jeff Chester on How New Media Is Causing the Brandwashing of America

Published: January 09, 2007

We are witnessing the creation of the most powerful media and communications system ever developed. A flood of compelling video images propelled by the interactivity of the internet will be delivered though digital TVs, PCs, cellphones, digital video recorders, iPods, and countless mobile devices. These technologies will surround us, immerse us, always be on, wherever we are — at home, work or play.


Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington a nonprofit policy group focusing on digital communications. | ALSO: Comment on this issue in the ‘Your Opinion’ box below.

Related Story:

America Is Being ‘Brandwashed’ Claims Author
Jeff Chester Says Ad Industry Secretly Tracks Consumers

Following our travels
Much of the programming will be personalized, selected by us with the help of increasingly sophisticated, but largely invisible, technologies that will “sense” or “know” our interests, dislikes, and habits. Information about our travels — in cyber and real space — will be collected and stored, most often without our awareness. Our personal data will be the basis of computerized profiles that quickly generate commercial pitches honed to precisely fit our psychology and behavior.

A ubiquitous system of micropersusaion is emerging, where the potent forces of new media are being unleashed to influence our individual behavior. From the ad industry’s initiatives to better perfect measures such as “engagement,” to the MI4 research effort (Measurement Initiative for Advertising, Agencies, Media and Researchers) to harness the power of the unconscious mind, to the rapid evolution of “rich media” virtual applications, a marketing technological “arms race” is underway that will further permeate advertising and marketing in our daily lives.

Wherever we are — online or in the street connected by mobile devices — Americans (and much of the world) will be increasingly influenced by the technologies of digital marketing. Such a system will be greatly aided by the scores of supplemental “real world” marketing efforts, including teams of viral street marketers and brand evangelists (many of whom are not yet old enough to vote!).

Increasing power
The ad industry likes to claim that the public has more control over what advertising they see or whether they like it at all. Many Ad Age readers point to the increasing expansion of the media and argue that advertising is now less powerful. But such assertions are disingenuous. Fueled by global media consolidation, advertisers are now working even more closely with content companies. Product placement has morphed into “program” placement and beyond. Like radio and the early days of broadcast TV, marketing, distribution and content are increasingly seamless. The broadband internet, digital TV and new forms of mobile communications are all being shaped by the forces of marketing. As I argue in my new book, “Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy,” advertising is becoming more powerful, not less.

In the book, I chronicle the ad industry’s role in helping shape the early development of the internet, including how groups and companies such as the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), Procter & Gamble Co., and The New York Times promoted what was once called the “Internet Advertising Ecosystem.” It covers the evolution of the “one-to-one,” “new media” marketing paradigm that still serves as the industry’s basic digital blueprint (further fueled today by sophisticated off- and online data collection, web analytics, interactivity and the branding power of video). The ad industry’s substantial research and political infrastructure — including ARF, Association of National Advertisers, American Association of Advertising Agencies, Interactive Advertising Bureau, its many councils and committees and global groups such as Esomar — are also explained.

From online “behavioral targeting” to interactive ad networks to “virtual hosts” and other “socially intelligent interfaces,” the book attempts to lay bare what marketers plan for the country’s “digital destiny.” Although readers of Ad Age know well what is now underway and its likely impact, the public is largely uninformed. One of my goals is to encourage a meaningful national debate about the current direction of the ad and marketing industry and its impact on society.

Let consumers decide
One of the most serious concerns is about privacy. Most marketers and advertisers are opposed to permitting consumers/users to have real control over their data. They want the default to be the collection of information so we can be precisely targeted. That’s why privacy groups, including my own Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), want Congress to pass legislation requiring a full disclosure of what information is being collected, via what method, and how it is to be used. After examining such details, each consumer would decide on a periodic basis whether to agree to permit the collection of their data (known as “opt-in”).

The current “opt-out” system, where consumers have to proactively seek to place their personal information off-limits, is designed to ensure that most consumers consent by default to data collection. New threats to our privacy from marketers and advertisers have emerged, including behavioral targeting, online retargeting (where consumers are digitally shadowed over ad networks), and the emergence of “intelligent ad engines” placed in cellphones and other mobile devices.

Recently, CDD and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group jointly filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to declare many of today’s interactive advertising industry practices, including behavioral targeting and virtual advertising, unfair and deceptive. It appears that the FTC is now slowly lifting its head out of the digital sand to seriously investigate the industry based on our complaint. But it will take prodding from the new Congress to get the FTC to act.

Safeguards for new technology
Beyond privacy, interactive-marketing technologies also raise unique concerns about “vulnerable” populations. Unleashing personalized and cyber-virtual marketing to children, teens, prescription-drug users, and the elderly raise important questions related to public health. These groups will need to be protected with new safeguards. But even more is at stake. The entire system of interactive advertising must become more transparent and requires intense public scrutiny, debate, and — where needed — effective public policies.

For example, advertisers are now working to harness the power of our emotions through research on “neuroscience” and “psychophysiology.” As the ARF and AAAA explained in 2005 during Advertising Week, the industry wants to “capture unconscious thought, recognition of symbols and metaphors.”

“Emotional responses can be created even if we have no awareness of the stimuli that caused them,” the ARF and AAAA noted. Such potential manipulation of a consumer’s unconscious will be even more powerful when delivered by virtual agents (such as avatars) that have been fashioned (via data profiling) to dovetail with our desires and interests.

What’s the long-term impact?
I fear that such a powerful psychosocial stealth-marketing machine, backed by the yearly expenditure of many billions of marketing dollars, will drive personal consumption to greater excess. What will be the impact on our environment, such as global warming, as a steady stream of interactive marketing messages are planted deep into our brains wherever we go? Will the digital push to buy and positively associate with brands promote an even more narcissistic human culture? What will be the impact of our personalized communications marketing system on the healthy development of children, families and communities?

The ad and marketing industries have an important role to play in our society, especially helping financially support news, information, and entertainment services. I recognize that advertising will continue to be a very powerful force in our lives. But marketers need to demonstrate greater social responsibility. They must ensure that consumers fully understand and consent to digital techniques; make certain that approaches to target our emotions and other brain behaviors are truly safe (including the impact of virtual reality); and, most importantly, help our media system evolve in a way that strengthens civil society.

Such a goal is not for the U.S. alone, but also involves how the marketing industry serves the public in the developing world. For example, what will be the impact on the world environment as China’s emerging digital infrastructure is bombarded with one-to-one commercial messages promoting automobiles?

The creation of a broadband media system will be viewed by future generations as one of our society’s most significant accomplishments. Will it be seen as one of the highest achievements for a democracy, a place in cyberspace that helped enrich the lives of many and offered new opportunities for an outpouring of cultural and civic expression? Or will it been seen years hence as a new version of what the late scholar Neil Postman aptly described as a medium even more capable of “amusing ourselves to death”? The readers of Ad Age will help determine that answer.

~ ~ ~
This column was adapted from Mr. Chester’s new book “Digital Destiny” (The New Press, 2007).

A Proposal for a Progressive Media Reform Agenda: Shape the Digital Marketplace

Here’s a link to my new piece timed for the Free Press media reform conference. It lays out what I believe should be done to ensure a more democratic press and civic-minded political future for the U.S.

Beware the “new” AT&T: Time for a national citizens’ “Broadband Watch”

Fresh from its merger approval by the FCC, AT&T (nee SBC) took out a two-page color ad in the New York Times today. Their PR pitch floats over a picture of our planet’s atmosphere. Like fellow broadband super-monopolist Comcast, the “new” AT&T clearly has imperial ambitions. It desires to dominate both network connections and digital content.

Read their ad copy to see what I mean: “AT&T, BellSouth and Cingular have come together. Creating the nation’s largest provider of broadband, wireless and voice services and the world leader in IP networking. Three companies, now united to deliver the complete picture of communications and entertainment to every screen…”

Note the word “entertainment,” signaling the real goal for the broadband giant. They will use their network power to push all kinds of programming which pleases big brand advertisers and major content producers (think Viacom, Fox, etc).

The FCC should have rejected the AT&T/BellSouth deal. Commissioners Copps and Adelstein did what they could—heroically so. But the multimedia mega merger illustrates why public interest advocates must push for anti-trust and merger reform for the media and telecommunications sector. Otherwise (as I note in my new book), we will soon see phone and cable companies merge with new media companies (think Yahoo! or Google) and also swallow up newspapers, broadcasters and the like.

But we can’t count on the policy process to deliver any semblance of real reform. That’s why activists need to examine closely how AT&T and other broadband giants operate the network. It’s not the private fiefdom of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, etc. The digital media system is also a public trust, requiring serious citizen and activist oversight. From issues related to network capacity, to deals made with content providers, to how phone and cable companies address public interest content online, via mobile device, and with digital TV, this network (like this Land) is yours and mine. In each community, teams of activists should work with experts to monitor what AT&T and others do—reporting the good, bad, and ugly to city councils, the press, etc. We must proactively redistribute the balance of power when it come to how broadband serves the U.S. public.

Digital Destiny published

Tomorrow is the official publication date of my book, “Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy” (The New Press). It’s designed to serve as a warning to those who believe that the “new media” will automatically provide the basis for a more democratic communications system in the U.S. At its core is an expose of the stealth mechanism promoting personal consumption that is at the foundation of our digital system. For the majority of us, wherever we go—online, in the street via mobile devices, and while viewing digital TV, we will be digitally tracked, profiled and targeted. Our privacy will be further eroded in the process. Unless we create safeguards and other measures, the most powerful media system ever created will primarily be a force for self-gratification and acquiring products (along with the selling of politicians and a spate of ideologies, no doubt). More on this point to follow.

Digital Destiny also chronicles the paid-for by industry nonprofit groups that help support an agenda designed to weaken the public interest. It covers the endless chain of academics, universities, revolving door officials, and think tanks that help prop up media industry power. In that sense, it “names name’s.”

It also covers the battles over media ownership, broadband access (network neutrality), and offers a modest agenda for the U.S. media future.