Commercial Alert's Gary Ruskin Deplores the Growing 'Infomercial Culture'

Advertising's Gadfly Deplores the 'Deception' of Product Placement

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Who: Gary Ruskin, executive director, Commercial Alert.

Why you need to know him: A critic of the "commercialization of every nook and cranny of our lives and cultures," as he puts it, Mr. Ruskin is one of the best-known and potent opponents of advertising. He's been a gadfly on everything from branded entertainment and product placement to buzz marketing and the selling of junk food in schools.
Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert says advertising belongs in the marketplace, but that it has lost its value: 'Advertising these days provides nearly no information and is propaganda through and through.'

Credentials: Mr. Ruskin founded Commercial Alert with Ralph Nader in 1998. Since 1993, he's also been director of the Congressional Accountability Project. He lives in Portland, Ore.

Since 2003 you've been asking for Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission rules to require TV networks to disclose product placement, to no avail. In 2005, the FTC rejected the petition, but the FCC has not yet ruled. Why is this such an important issue to you? "It's dishonest advertising. It slips by our critical faculties and plants its message in our brains when we're not paying attention. It's important to talk about terminology. You talk about product placement and that's fine. We talk about something called embedded advertising, a broader phenomenon that includes product placement and integration. Embedded advertising is inherently deceptive because it's not apparent that the ads are ads. It's stealth advertising. It's ad creep. People are sick and tired of being bombarded with ads at every waking moment. Another problem is that it turns TV and movies into glorified infomercials. Increasingly, we're living in an infomercial culture."

Do you see more or less product placement in news content these days? Does it present the same issues as entertainment content? "We have noticed more of this and we've done work on this issue. We've formed a coalition that's written to magazine publishers to ask for stricter rules on product placement. We've criticized some top newspapers for failing to solicit all sides of opinion on some business stories. We've criticized all newspapers for putting free advertising in the papers by referring to stadiums by their corporate names rather than their nicknames. The advertising-editorial line is dissolving in a wide variety of contexts, and we're defending that line in search engines or magazines or newspapers."

There are any number of studies showing that Americans are comfortable with the presence of brands in their entertainment and their life. Granted, these are often produced by agencies or marketers, but what do you think of the notion that Americans are simply comfortably being surrounded by brands? "We don't have the money to do polling because we're a small nonprofit, but there is some [polling] out there that answers this question. The best polling was done in 2004 by Yankelovich Partners, which found that 65% of Americans feel constantly bombarded with too much marketing and advertising. Sixty percent of consumers have a much more negative opinion of marketing and advertising now than a few years ago. Sixty-five percent think there should be more limits and regulations on advertising. As advertising becomes more intrusive those numbers are going to become bigger and bigger. The other way you can tell is that during the last five or six years Commercial Alert and a number of other groups have won victories against the commercialization of every nook and cranny of our lives and cultures. Those victories wouldn't be possible without growing support across the political spectrum. That support is growing and that bodes poorly for the infomercial industry."

What kind of victories are you referring to? "We're kicking junk food and soda pop out of schools across the county. Only one city has ads on police cars, as far as we know. [Major League Baseball] backed off of ads on uniforms and on bases. We have the national Do-Not-Call Registry, which is enormously popular."

On your Web site, you mention that Commercial Alert's goal is to keep "commercial culture within its proper sphere"? How do you define that? "Advertising belongs in the marketplace. Places where people buy and shop. And it should be limited to price advertising. The ad industry long ago left the world of facts and information and now provides images and no useful information. As its value has decreased to the citizen, the citizen's distaste for it has increased."

How did you come to take an interest in commercialism? "In the mid-1990s, when I was talking to Ralph Nader and thinking a lot about this, it was impossible to read a major newspaper and not see a new intrusive, destructive form of commercialism. And that's even truer now. At that time, there was no group to essentially fight a thousand-front war against commercialization. I also run something called the Congressional Accountability Project, which opposed corruption in Congress. The more and more I got neck deep in corruption of Congress, I realized that the fact that Congress is for sale is just a microcosm of the problem that our culture is for sale. Too much of America is for sale. If you want a Congress that can't be bought, then you need a society that can't be bought."

How do you think advertisers view you and your organization? "I don't know. You should ask them."

Are there any benefits, cultural or otherwise, to advertising? "No. Advertising these days provides nearly no information and is propaganda through and through."

Have you ever seen any product placement or branded entertainment you enjoy? "Some of the most brilliant people on our planet spend their time trying to come up with crafty ways to put brands in entertainment. It's hard not to smile and marvel at the unbelievable creativity devoted to this trivial and worthless phenomenon. It would be so much better if these tremendously talented people were doing something better for their country and their world."

Do you think there's any hope for your cause in ad-skipping technologies? "Maybe, but probably not. When I see DVRs, I think what's driving that phenomenon is not technology but distaste for advertising. In some ways, technology is secondary or tertiary. People use DVRs because of their distaste for advertising."

With all that said, are you a fan of TV? What do you watch? "No. I am a fan of reading. The television is weapon of mass destruction. It is destroying our politics, education, communities and health. We encourage people to read and to watch as little TV as possible."

Do you have TiVo, and if so, what's on it? "No, I don't have a TiVo. My wife owns a TV, but we keep it in the closet. We bring it out for wars, elections and research."

What do you do on your downtime? "Running, reading, hiking, gardening, hanging out in the kitchen, and listening to WWOZ are my favorites."