I'm receiving phone calls this week about a plan to use product placement during certain broadcast news programs. The product in question is a cup of coffee from McDonald's. In one version of the plan, McDonald's cups would be visible on news sets. The cups would not be real cups, just props that could not be spilled. Wouldn't want any real-life stains on those snowy scripts, after all, just the suggestion that our friendly anchors get their joe from Mickey D's.

To complain about such a practice is like complaining that a bunny has smuggled a rabbit's foot across the border. But someone has got to make a big deal out of this, so it might as well be me. I've got two goals in mind: to give journalists arguments for warding off this sleazy practice, and others like it; and to give news consumers the idea that, from now on, a warning light should go off anytime you see a professional journalist in proximity to a brand name. (Hey, why not just have product decals attached to reporters' hats and jackets, like NASCAR drivers?)

Product placement is as old as television itself, and probably older, but is associated most often with entertainment programming. I'm old enough to remember the days when Lucy and Ricky Ricardo smoked like chimneys on a show sponsored by Philip Morris.

In the early 1970s, a CBS handbook of standards and practices warned of the dangers of mixing news and entertainment values. Television news, after all, existed in a medium known primarily for entertainment, so there would always be the temptation for techniques and themes of showbiz to cross the border into news. The handbook stated that such temptations should be avoided -- even if it resulted in news programming that was less dramatic and less interesting. Over three decades such standards have eroded, resulting, for example, in television news magazine programs, like "Dateline," that look less and less like news and more and more like another spinoff of "Law & Order."

Product placement migrating from entertainment to news is a sad, but logical, next step.

Why sad? A news medium that brags about public service, fairness, and accuracy now may also use, without transparency, a deception that tricks viewers into associating a particular brand of coffee with something serious: an experience of the news. Such practices were once cited as not just annoying, but dangerous. They fell under a phrase I haven't heard for years: subliminal suggestion.

Aldous Huxley devoted a chapter to this topic in his 1958 book "Brave New World Revisited." He recalled that certain scientific studies, going back to 1917, demonstrated that an image projected for a tiny fraction of a second could imprint itself upon the unconscious mind.

Huxley argued that these studies were mere curiosities until the creation in 1957 of something known as "subliminal projection." This new technique was visited upon those who sought out mass entertainment:

Its purpose was to manipulate their minds without their being aware of what was being done to them. ... Words or images were to be flashed for a millisecond or less upon the screens of television sets and motion picture theaters during (not before or after) the program. "Drink Coca-Cola" or "Light up a Camel" would be superimposed upon the lovers' embrace, the tears of the broken-hearted mother, and the optic nerves of the viewers would record these secret messages, their subconscious minds would respond to them and in due course they would consciously feel a craving for soda pop and tobacco.
Huxley was not persuaded that such technology actually worked. He was more concerned about what he called "persuasion-by-association." In other words, "the propagandist arbitrarily associates his chosen product, candidate or cause with some idea, some image of a person or thing which most people, in a given culture, unquestioningly regard as good." Female beauty, for example, can be used to sell "anything from a bulldozer to a diuretic"; appeals to patriotism can be used to justify almost any atrocity.

(Perhaps the only good news in this is that McDonald's wants its product associated with something usually considered unpopular: journalists and the news report.)

OK, there you have it, I've made too much of this.

But, hey, aren't we forgetting the print media? Haven't magazines been placing product ads in close proximity to puffy content for years? And what about those advertorials in newspapers? Weren't they designed to confuse the reader into thinking that they were getting a neutral report on a product rather than a paid advertisement? How 'bout all those infomercials I see at four in the morning that are scripted and staged to look like news interviews?

Is this the world promised to us by the post-modernists, a world where everyone has a take or is on the take? At least I know where I can get a good cup of coffee: Dunkin' Donuts.

 
CORRECTION: Philip Morris was misspelled in the original version of this article.