Super Blog: How we, the media, get used!

By Bram Weinstein/@RealBramW

Sadly the lasting memory I’ll have of Super Bowl 50 is the way Peyton Manning answered a question about his playing future, by telling me he plans on drinking a lot of Budweiser. Just in case you missed it the first time, 10 minutes later, he said it again.

Regardless of the outcome, the most newsworthy event that would come out of the game would be this inevitable question about whether Manning would retire. CBS had two opportunities to speak to Manning live after Denver defeated Carolina. The first time was in the immediate aftermath of the win on the sideline with the terrific reporter Tracy Wolfson. Asked if the eventual Hall of Fame quarterback had played his final game, Manning said he had other priorities which included kissing his wife and drinking a lot of Budweiser (lets ignore the poor messaging to kids here).

Being that this was likely the final time Manning would play a football game, you can excuse him if what he said in that moment wasn’t all that well thought out. But a few minutes later, suspicions of the ultimate sell out were confirmed. CBS host Jim Nantz was in charge of interviewing the members of the Broncos as they each were given an opportunity to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Manning was the last person Nantz spoke with and he reiterated the retirement question because Manning failed to answer it definitively the first time. And Manning simply repeated his desire to “drink a lot of beer,” but then caught himself and quickly slipped the brand “Budweiser,” in. Manning was even seen engaged with his pizza partner Papa John on the sideline following Denver’s win.

Football fans are accustomed to seeing Manning aligned with brands. He’s in countless commercials for major names that sell among other things: cars, insurance, televisions, cookies, and pizza. But I think he crossed the line here by using two highly regarded media members and their platforms to sell a product, in this case beer. He hijacked the moment for personal gain. And he’s not alone.  (For the record, the head of Marketing for Bud took to Twitter last night and said the brand DID NOT pay Manning to say Bud.  We’ll let you decide …).

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The line is getting blurrier and blurrier as advertisers seek to product place in new and unexpected ways. This has been going on in Nascar since the beginning of the sport gaining a television foothold. Watch any interview with any winning driver of any race. They will (and clearly it’s accepted doctrine by the governing body) always squeeze into answers about victory the names of the sponsors to an almost laughable degree. No paint company had anything to do with how the car performed. But it’s become commonplace and the sport clearly desires it’s participants to use reporters for messaging.

Football is different which is why I was so shocked to hear Manning so non transparently use CBS for his own personal gain. Budweiser is a major advertiser of NFL football. But of all the brands Manning represents, beer was not one that I realized was public. And consider for a moment what advertisers pay for a 30 second piece of real estate during the game broadcast? Some reports suggest the rates can be as high as 5 million dollar per. So here is Manning using the moment that every fan was waiting to hear about to slip in which beer he plans on drinking.

Look, for years, Disney World got the game’s Most Valuable Player to announce he’d be vacationing there immediately after winning the Super Bowl. Super Bowl 50 produced one of it’s iconic players announcing the world he was going to get wasted, but at least it’s with a classic American beer!

The point I’m getting to here is about what to do in these moments, which in general is not much. As a reporter for any outlet you are going to be pitched by various public relations and marketing firms about getting their guests (famous and not so famous) on to discuss what is clearly an agenda laden piece. You must be willing to discern which ones are worth the air time and which ones are just using you. In the case of Manning, his transparency here was actually shocking. So, in some cases, like that moment, what are you going to do? You can’t expect an interviewee to use you like that.

Often in the sports world, guests were supplied to the variety of outlets I worked for “on behalf of…” And we were obligated to ask a question about the product (Mountain Dew for example) or cause (toenail fungus) they were getting paid to talk about. All of the outlets I worked for without fail said yes to any guest of any name value even with this quid pro quo outlined. In the case of Manning at the Super Bowl, I’d be surprised in Nantz or Wolfson knew of what he was going to do. And I wonder if the NFL who sells those high priced commercial spots will have to condemn what he did for fear that other advertisers will assume it’s free reign to buy stars post game commentary. Von Miller was the MVP, I didn’t hear him credit his love of McDonalds as the reason why he caused a game changing turnover. But now after Manning did, maybe he will if the price is right.

So what do you do when someone has decided to slip in agenda when you weren’t under the expectation that this person was brought to you by whatever brand they are promoting? This is a gut call. Ask yourself this, are they answering the questions you want with a modicum of truth and then slipping in their brand? If so, it’s up to you and your station how much is too much? But if this person is deftly, or in some cases not so deftly avoiding giving you any reasonable answer and clearly directing everything to the language of advertising, shut it down. You are the one who ends up looking foolish here because the viewer can see right through transparency. This is what was so shocking about what Peyton did. Does he think they viewers are that stupid that they don’t understand what he did? Of course, if doing that didn’t have an expected ripple effect of increased business, Budweiser and Peyton wouldn’t have agreed to whatever they agreed to.

Remember this, you are being used here. Just know what the score is before the interview begins. When we got a guest that I knew had to get in a mention of a product I often told them beforehand that I promised to ask them about it in the course of the interview in the hope that I wouldn’t have a conversation with someone who was ignoring everything else. This worked most of the time and I always kept my promise. Like I said, know the score.

If however the person is being interviewed and it’s clear they have an agenda that wasn’t part of the initial agreement to speak, shut them down quickly. Your viewers will thank you for not allowing someone to turn your content into an advertisement. Remember, we are conduits of journalism. If we allow ourselves to get used, our credibility is collateral damage and that is not damage you can survive and grow with. It comes off as you are complicit with the ad concept.

For Wolfson and Nantz, there was nothing they could have done. This was a special case. It was the only interview that really mattered and they had to take it for better or worse. Most of the time though, we aren’t talking to Peyton Manning and the answer to almost any question doesn’t need forced product placement. Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl, I doubt he’s actually “Cuckoo for Coco Coco Puffs” at that very moment.

I want to hear your thoughts… Email me … bram@reel-reporting.com or leave a comment below. I’ll share them later this week.

You can also get in touch with me there about speaking engagements or visits to your station.  Check out the new pod, out tomorrow too.

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