Questionable sponsors can alienate audiences

In real estate, being surrounded by eyesores can diminish your property’s value. So as networks prepare for upfront sales, they ought to be fretting about whether the proliferation of bottom-feeding advertisers in areas once reserved for blue-chip sponsors could produce the same kind of image-deflating effect.

Pity poor programmers, who find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Categories that once anchored certain kinds of genres, from automakers to financial services, have receded amid the dismal economy. Yet the media buyers stepping forward to fill the void are mostly those that frequent latenight and weekend afternoons, including direct-response marketers, miracle cures and the relatively new territory of hard liquor.

The average person, not surprisingly, might not want to be associated with the target audience these commercials are presumably intended to reach. And as these ads escape from their former pens, they further blur boundaries separating prestige and low-brow fare.

Last summer, CBS ran infomercials for CD music collections during “Swingtown,” a drama that scared off some sponsors with its sexual content. Yet such ads have become increasingly commonplace.

Local TV and radio, in particular, have already pretty much blown the lid off any standards they once might have harbored. Sure, in the old days if you stayed home sick from work you might see a lot of questionable daytime TV ads, from personal-injury attorneys to broadcasting schools to hair-restoration creams. Now, such material is hardly confined to independent station reruns of “Bonanza” or content-distressed items like “Jerry Springer,” where they previously congregated.

Similarly, broadcast and cable news has become a conspicuous haven for every manner of physical ailment. Based strictly on the commercials, one might assume that news viewers are tenuously clinging to life, at risk of sending their blood pressure skyrocketing if Brian Williams or Charles Gibson inadvertently gets them overly agitated.

Monitoring “ABC World News” and “The NBC Nightly News” on a recent weeknight, fully half the spots related to pharmaceuticals. In their totality, they painted an unwitting portrait of an audience afflicted by diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, high blood pressure, leaky bladders, gas pains, hemorrhoids and osteoporosis — and in dire need of a stool softener. All told, it wasn’t a very appetizing fit for dinnertime viewing — and that was without the erectile-dysfunction ads spied later on Keith Olbermann’s show.

Once in a while an ad-agency creative team comes up with something especially clever for such products, but even an ambitious commercial for an anti-gas pill is, finally, still a spot for an anti-gas pill.

Of course, news isn’t the only sphere where the commercials send a clear signal regarding who’s perceived to be tuning in. Peruse cable channels after midnight — including encore airings of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” — and you’re treated to a vast assortment of blurbs for “Girls Gone Wild” videos and adult chat lines, squarely aimed at the drunk and desperate. It’s enough to make an insomniac contemplate taking a shower before going to bed.

Amid coverage of the economic downturn’s impact, the inroads made by infomercials and alcohol haven’t gone unnoticed. A.J. Khubani, CEO of Telebrands, told the New York Times that his company’s spots for such products as a callus remover have increased their primetime exposure by 20% vs. last year. “I like to say that we’re getting beachfront property and trailer-park prices,” he said, which is a particularly apt analogy.

Local stations, meanwhile, have broken the self-imposed broadcast ban against distilled spirits, with the Los Angeles Times noting that CBS affiliates carried Absolut Vodka ads during the Grammy Awards — a premiere event.

If this seems like a small matter, remember that media buyers have traditionally made a big deal about cultivating the proper “environment” for their spots, raking networks over the coals regarding series that push boundaries of propriety. In that context, won’t it be ironic — and a little sad — if the ads themselves go further than the programs ever did in polluting broadcasters’ air.

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