Saturday, November 17, 2007

Product Placement

A while back our local daily newspaper began running advertisements on its previously sacrosanct section fronts. That was fine by us, because we understand the challenges faced by hugely profitable monopolies in today’s complex and competitive media and information environment. We fully expect to awake one morning in the near future and find the front page plastered with ads. That, too, will be OK. After all, the reader who can’t tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story---or even an advertisement masquerading as a news story---probably has more pressing matters to attend to than scanning the daily paper.

Yet we must acknowledge being somewhat nonplussed by a recent development in the Houston Chronicle: that of advertisements literally jutting into adjacent news stories. We first noticed this phenomenon several months ago on a page inside the front section of a Saturday edition. The ad was a two-column page-length strip for the 2007 line of Jeeps and depicted three models whose front bumpers protruded in a most unfortunate manner into a half-column of the adjacent news copy. Two of the three vehicles were nosed right into a reprint of a New York Times dispatch on an acknowledged but never-convicted pedophile whose “exhibitionistic blogging about his thoughts on little girls” had riled parents in Los Angeles and raised vexatious free-speech questions.

We tried to finish reading this most interesting story but just couldn’t get past the blithe blurring of the line (the literal line!) between news and advertising. Then there was the slogan that had involuntarily arisen in our mind: “Jeep Commander Limited: The Ride Preferred by the Blogging Pedophile of L.A.!” Perhaps this was just a one-shot experiment, we thought, but as usual we were wrong: Just this Friday the front ends of a whole ’nother line of Chrysler products were parked in a news story, this one about a Holocaust survivor from Belarus who was orphaned at 7 but managed to hang on until the end of the war as a "mascot” of pro-Nazi Latvian troops. Those protruding Chryslers sort of cheapened the story for us, if you dig where we’re coming from.

This must be a fairly effective advertising technique, though, because on Saturday Jeeps were poking out into stories all over the front section (“MySpace hoax called reason for suicide,” “Japan, U.S., tout common ground”* and “North, South Korea make multiple deals”**).

We wonder whether the Chronicle has considered the possibilities this layout style holds for those “Super Sex pill” advertisements.

*Future Pulitzer finalist for "Most Scintillating Headline in a Daily Newspaper with Circulation of 500,000 or Above."

**Runner-up to Pulitzer finalist.

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