Product placement: It's not just for entertainment shows anymore

With a new sponsorship deal between MSNBC's Morning Joe and Starbucks (SBUX), NBC News has become the first network news operation to weave endorsement of an advertiser into the fabric of its programming. In exchange for what The New York Times reports to be more than $10 million, Joe Scarborough and his breakfast-hour companions will quaff Starbucks-brewed beverages on air (as, in fact, they've been doing, gratis, for years) and promote the chain with graphics and voice-overs.

A show with a coffee-inspired pun for a name hooking up with a coffee sponsor: What could be more natural, right? But the MSNBC-Starbucks marriage is sure to induce jitters among journalism ethicists, who've been watching as recession-stressed media companies have done away, one by one, with the traditional buffers between news and entertainment.

Earlier this year, the Times, bending to unprecedented financial pressure, opened up its front page to advertisers for the first time, a change it had resisted for years. The Los Angeles Times was recently rapped by ethicists, and its own employees, for publishing ad units that masqueraded as articles. Elsewhere in print publishing, the American Society of Magazine Editors has repeatedly had to confront magazines that have violated its guidelines by featuring ads on magazine covers.

NBC Universal, which owns MSNBC, has been especially aggressive -- or, as they'd put it, innovative -- about finding new ways to work with marketers. The action-comedy Chuck has a long-term sponsorship deal with Subway that includes prominent placement of the chain's sandwiches in plotlines. Jay Leno, who is creating a new 10 p.m. show, has said that he's prepared to read live spots, as radio hosts like Howard Stern and Don Imus do. Oh, and the first L.A. Times ad that disguised itself as a news article was for the NBC series Southland.

But those are all entertainment shows. Morning Joe, on the other hand, is, at least nominally, a news show -- and the big network news operations have so far been careful to keep clear of anything even resembling product placement. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz tells the Times "the rules of engagement in marketing and advertising have changed quite significantly," he's not kidding.

The Joe-Starbucks agreement is not quite a first: Last year, the local Fox channel in Las Vegas, KVVU, negotiated a similar sponsorship for its morning show involving iced coffee drinks from McDonald's. Reacting to critics, the station's news director promised that the coffee placements would be limited to the show's lifestyle segments, disappearing while the news was being read. No such niceties for MSNBC.

However, a network spokesman says product placements won't be popping up in any other MSNBC shows -- for the time being. "This is a very unique deal that really made sense for Morning Joe, not something we'd do with most sponsors," he emailed. "We wouldn't rule out anything in the future, but right now there are no plans for anything like this with any other shows."


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