Shilling them softly

ARD ensnared in product placement scandal

Forget sex, drugs and violence.

On Germany’s hit soap “Marienhof,” you’re more likely to see characters dispensing home improvement tips and travel advice, or pushing for Turkey’s admission into the European Union — all paid for, undisclosed, by advertisers like the Consortium of Textile Floor Coverings, travel operator L’tur and the Assn. of Turkish Entrepreneurs & Industrialists.

The practice — which has spurred an internal investigation at ARD and its Bavaria Film subsid — saw actors uttering lines like, “With carpets you have less dust, they absorb sound, look impeccable and make it easier for children to take their first steps.”

An expose by German mag Evangelischer Pressedienst put the spotlight on what had been a badly kept secret: Germany’s pubcasters supplement their license fees and legal TV ads with illicit product placements.

ARD and Bavaria Film have gone into overdrive on damage control. Bavaria execs admitted to a “limited” amount of illicit placements and have hired KPMG to conduct a an audit.

Unlike in the U.S., where product placement is legal if disclosed, German law prohibits all hidden advertising on TV programs.

Media watchdogs say Germany has some of the toughest regs in the European Union. But that may soon change.

Lawmakers are looking at adapting a more U.S.-style approach, allowing broadcasters to use product placement as long as it’s properly disclosed.

That’s unlikely to get ARD off the hook, however.

The EU is looking into German pubcasters’ commercial operations, hinting they may be breaking the law with their “legal” activities, including the use of license fees for commercial purposes.

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