Jewish World Review August 20, 2002 / 12 Elul, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Brace yourself for attacks of the stealth ads | So I was sitting at my desk, which I bought from my local Oak Post furniture store, utilizing their 90-days-same-as-cash financing. I was reading The New York Times, which, for a limited time, you can have delivered to your doorstep every morning for 50 percent off. And I came across a story about stealth advertising.

It concerned an interview "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer recently did with Lauren Bacall. She mentioned a friend who went blind from an eye disease called macular degeneration. She mentioned a new drug, Visudyne, which is used to treat the affliction. What she didn't mention was that the makers of Visudyne were paying her to promote their product, that her appearance was, for all practical purposes, a commercial masquerading as an interview.

Stealth advertising. Commercial pitches sneaked in on us by people we'd never suspect in contexts that look like anything but. This is, according to The Times, the new wrinkle in prescription drug advertising - actors and talk-show hosts dropping plugs here and there, often huckstering us without having the decency to let us know. It strikes me as an ethically questionable development - of which the advertising community has certainly seen no shortage.

Sometimes, I swear, I feel as if we're all living inside a never-ending commercial. Not so long ago, advertising confined itself to certain obvious and easily definable times and places and even had the decency to announce itself. You'd be watching television and they'd say, "And now a word from our sponsor," which was your cue to raid the kitchen or make a break for the porcelain throne.

That sounds quaint in an era of arenas named for multinational conglomerates, TV news reports that are little more than glorified promos for the network's top shows and newspaper ads designed to resemble news stories. Sometimes, it feels as if everything you read, see or hear, every place you go or surface you touch, exists for the purpose of getting you to buy some gewgaw, knickknack or doodad. And they can be awfully cunning about it, too.

Take, for instance, your favorite amusement park. Used to be, you got off the ride and were ushered out some nondescript back exit. But have you noticed how these days, they route you out through a gift shop where all the merchandise relates to the ride you just rode? You realize it wasn't a ride at all, but a commercial for a shop you now have no choice but to walk through, dragging a child whose fingers are pointing, whose eyes have been super-sized and who is mouthing two words guaranteed to strike terror in the wallets of parents everywhere: "I want."

The process of separating you and me from money could not be more brutally efficient if they grabbed you by the ankles, turned you upside down and shook.

Now there's this. Lauren Bacall shilling, unannounced, for a pharmaceutical company. It suggests to me that we're crossing a previously uncrossed frontier, that the methods once used to sell soft drinks and action figures will now be used to sell health. That trend has been building in recent years, what with all these new TV ads touting the benefits of prescription drugs. You know the ones: Right after the announcer tells you how this pill can transform your life into an oasis of peace and well-being, he informs you in a low monotone that its side effects include dry mouth, impotence, insomnia, mental illness, psoriasis and bleeding eyeballs.

From now on, I guess, they'll skip the announcer altogether in favor of some respected actor acting as if he's not being paid to sing the praises of pills. And that's a little scary. Stealth advertising is questionable enough when all it involves is product placement that turns a movie into a two-hour car commercial. But when it involves my health, it's something else altogether.

Hey, I'm perfectly willing to listen to Lauren Bacall's advice on acting or any other subject on which she has expertise, down to, and including, cat food. But I hope she won't mind if I continue to get my medical advice from actual medical professionals.

Sorry, Lauren. I guess I'm just funny that way.

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