Sunday, September 07, 2014

Caveat emptor: Comptek/Universal Media Syndicate, Aereo and morally challeged newspapers

We've all seen them, the full-page ads for Amish heaters (where it doesn't exactly say but where, apparently, primarily only the frames are made by the Amish), "rare" coins and bills, etc. While the debate about "native advertising" in digital rages in various forums (punctuated by John Oliver's hilarious takedown of it), the old-fashioned "advertorial" has become more and more a staple (from my observations) for cash-strapped newspapers.

But even newspapers have some moral, if not legal, obligation, it seems to me to at least give these things a vetting for being misleading -- and, frankly, from a business sense, too, since this kind of stuff doesn't do much to help your already steadily eroding credibility.

This ad was in The State newspaper today (The State is happy hunting ground for all these ads) on page A13. It's not masquerading -- it is clearly labeled as "Special Advertising Feature":

But what the ad is trying to do is trade off what may be for many people some dim recollection of this thing called the Aereo case that got headlines a few months ago when the Supreme Court ruled against the company. The ad artfully misstates what Aereo really was, however:
  • Yes, it did use "mini" antennas.
  • But they were in a bank of antennas in a huge warehouse in Brooklyn, for instance.
  • And they were not so much designed to plug into your TV as to enable you to watch your over-the-air free TV stations on your computer anywhere you wanted to.
  • And, finally, consumers have been able to get "free TV" as long as TV has been on the air
There's no evidence I see that this "slick little $88 device" that "pulls in crystal-clear digital TV channels for free with no monthly bills" does any more than a $15 or $25 antenna from Wal-Mart (or other retailers) that you can plug right into the back of your digitally enabled flat screen. And if you happen to have an old analog TV, you can add a digital converter box for about $35, bringing the total cost to maybe $60 instead of almost $100 with shipping and handling. Heck, one of those boxes will even record shows if you plug in a large-enough digital drive.

The ad promoting the "Clear-Cast" and using as a source "Comptek, 8000 Freedom Ave., Canton, Ohio, 44720," is artfully worded to avoid legal issues, things like "consumers who have a slick little micro antenna device will receive all of the major network Hollywood movies broadcast over the air for free." Yep, and you can receive those same movies with one of those cheaper antennas or, if you have an enabled flat screen, artfully shaped aluminum foil shoved into the antenna input, it would seem. Always have been able to. (Any implication that wording might make in the minds of the slightly informed and hugely gullible that they might get things like HBO or even TNT is, of course, an unintended consequence, I'm sure.)

No surprise here. Universal Media Syndicate, the operation behind these questionable ads, has been the subject of numerous complaints.

The only "slick little device" in this ad is the wording.

But at what point does a paper like The State have to make some moral decisions and say enough is enough? You no longer can separate the newsroom from the business, as if you ever really could. And that makes it even more important that news organizations -- newsroom, ad, business and corporate -- examine their morals and ethics when it comes to things like this.

(And I haven't exactly seen press associations rushing to rethink this, either.)

Oh, indeed, the almighty dollar is tempting -- and sorely needed -- at times like this. But if news organizations don't do it with an enlightened sense of what they are about, they will ultimately be almighty dead. Because, you see, even the dullest consumers have flashes of brilliance, and when they do these days, all they have to do is hit a button ...

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