Fishy Sandwiches and the Pandora’s Box of Newsvertising

4 min read

A recent news video, apparently of the “local goof” variety, has been circulating online for the past week or so, and caught the notice of the folks at AdWeek. In the clip, a traffic reporter, Jimmy Uhrin, known as “Traffic Jam Jimmy” on Fox 45 out of Baltimore, is thrown to by one of the morning crew in the studio and gets “caught,” live on camera, in the drive-through lane at McDonalds. Just watch.

Yes, his beard is orange, apparently for MS awareness week. I learned this from the AdWeek comments, where I was also informed that Sinclair Broadcasting, the station’s parent company, has been encouraging its news staff to “mix reporting with product placement for years.” I have no independent confirmation of this, but it seems plausible, given this stunt.

Why am I so certain this was a put-on, despite the station’s claim to the contrary? Apart from the McDonald’s bag in Uhrin’s back seat? Well, the Filet o’ Fish is usually given a bit of a marketing push during Lent; Uhrin orders a “fish sandwich” during what are clearly breakfast hours. Also, McDonald’s has a history with local news product placement, going back, at least, to this KVVU iced-coffee placement in 2008.

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver caught our attention last summer with a rant calling out the ascendance of native advertising by news organizations and the dissolution of the wall between journalism’s news and sales divisions. And he was right to do so, although as he acknowledges, the trend isn’t going to change unless more Americans are willing to actually pay for news. And we’re mostly not.

When I was just out of graduate school, I took a position at a high school for gifted eleventh and twelfth graders, in which my job was to teach them how to read literature. As part of my course load, I was required to lead two sections of a weekly, school-wide seminar. In one semester, our texts for weekly discussion were drawn from a set of provocative articles, entitled The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas, from the magazine Foreign Policy.

None of the articles had to do with advertising per se, but I learned two things that semester that I’m reminded of in this context. The first was that, as dangerous ideas go, my students weren’t much interested in what I would term Pandora’s box questions. They tended to assume, perhaps correctly, a universal urge toward the possible over any objections to the contrary. Should we fight a war on terror? Should we attempt to spread democracy? Should we engineer the human body? They didn’t have any use for those “should we?” questions.

It didn’t matter, they told me, because people were going to do what they wanted. Asking “should we?” wasn’t going to stop them.

The fanged, antlered, flying rabbit of newsvertising.

Though my own wish might be for a more civic-minded environment, I must admit to a cynicism born of experience. Do I believe that our collective indignation will stem the tide of newsvertising? I do not. As our own Matt Gonzales, a former full-time journalist, points out, the hybridization of news and content seems all but certain.

But there are avenues, I think, where we can expend the energies of our frustration. In those very seminars, my students, while not always interested in my questions, almost always brought questions and engagement of their own. They were much more keen on the news and issues of the day than they were on, say, Shakespeare, Beckett, or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Of course you can teach critical thinking, and close reading, with those old texts, too. But maybe it’s more to the point to engage them with the world in which they live. Have them watch the news, and advertisements, too. Dissect web pages. Read tweets. Explore alternative newspapers and cool comics.

You might think that an advertising copywriter wouldn’t care about an informed and media-savvy public, that he might actually prefer the opposite, but that’s where you’re wrong.

The smarter my audience is, the more traction I’ll get with reasoned, well-written argument. And the more I’ll get to write for an audience that appreciates a nuanced rhetorical approach. Maybe they still won’t know what I mean when I write of a “brave new world, that has such people in ‘t.” I can live with that. We can get to Shakespeare in time.

But if Pandora’s box can’t be closed, the only way forward is to open more minds.