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"Captive Audience" for Military PR

by Jack Penning

kgw.com

Posted on May 8, 2006 at 11:31 AM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:46 PM

United Box Logo.jpg

Tonight NewsChannel 8 reports on the inflight entertainment you see on United Airlines flights from Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to Portland. In the interest of full diclosure, it should first be noted, KGW's network, NBC, is paid to develop United's inflight programming. But now, United admits it's added a 13-minute segment that's not produced by NBC... though it may be difficult to distinguish it.

That 13-minute segment is called "Today's Military". It looks a lot like an NBC News program, profiling ten members of the US Military, all over the world... including Oregon National Guardsman Andrew Canfield. Some say its "passed-off" as a news program, even though its origins are quite different than the orgins of a news segment.

"Today's Military" was shot, produced, written, and edited by the Department of Defense. Agents there admit it's a recruiting video, meant to encourage young men and women to enlist. Yet, at no point in the inflight program, is that fact ever noted. There are no graphics on the screen, no credits, no voiceover to tell viewers what they're really watching. The Department of Defense isn't mentioned once. Not once, is any branch of the military tied to the video's production. Some passengers say it's intentionally meant to deceive... and look like the rest of the NBC News product.

The Department of Defense paid United $36,000 for the video to run on westbound flights, from April 17th to May 17th. Part of the agreement specified the DoD wouldn't be indentified. In the agreement, United says the video will reach about 3-million travelers.

Media ethics experts say, at best, it's deceiving not to identity the video's producer. Ethics experts say its important that people know they're being advertised to, and in this case, they do not. Moreover, they say, airline passengers are a captive audience, who can't just change the channel.

United says it often sells video spots. It says it averages between 7 and 15 minutes of paid video programming per 2-hour segment of NBC Inflight.

The Air Travelers Association says airline passengers should get used to it. It says, as the airlines look for ways to boost their revenue, and offset record fuel prices, they'll likely sell more commercial spots... although the organization says it's intellectually dishonest for an airline not to identify a commercial as such. It says it's up to passengers to watch all inflight programming with a critical eye.

The United Airlines segment of "Today's Military" is just one in a series. The Department of Defense has already produced a similar 22-minute program, that's been run on two television stations. And it says it's producing a 48-minute feature that will be distributed to 40,000 high schools around the country. The longer versions don't identify the Department of Defense, either.

KGW has received a number of similar "video new releases" from the Department of Defense and other government agencies. It is our station policy, and our Belo corporate policy, to never run these handouts.

Have a comment? E-mail me at jpenning@kgw.com.

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