This past weekend I was taken aback by two egregious instances of networks deceiving their audience (and in one case, possibly, their own announcing team) with “viral” advertising campaigns for (in FOX’s case) a network television program and (on ABC) toys.

Saturday night’s Reds-Braves game featured the following incident:

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Wilfred is a remake of an Australian series premiering this summer on FOX’s cable FX channel. Of course, if you didn’t know that (which I didn’t, and I presume most of the audience didn’t) you wouldn’t recognize the character from a show that hasn’t premiered yet. But FOX is known for this sort of crowd-shot promotion:

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(That’s a shot from the 2009 All-Star Game, when FOX lingered on a shot of a character from their then new program Fringe.)

What’s troubling is not the shot of the man in the dog suit followed by the eerie silence and the Wilfred promobug, it’s that Thom Brennaman and Eric Karros play it up like it’s a random event. This means one of two things:

1. FOX is actively misreporting live events, portraying them as real when in fact they’re plants designed to promote a new television series, or
2. FOX is promoting television programs on another network without bothering to inform their own announcers that the promo is happening.

I’m not sure which is worse, but either option is unethical and deceptive to the audience.

I tweeted a screencap of the dog suit and quickly received this retweet from THE GUY WEARING THE DOG SUIT. I can’t tell what his role in it is, nor does his Twitter suggest he has any connection to FOX, FX, or anything else. He might have been hired on the street as he went into the stadium to wear the suit.

UPDATE

I have acquired video of two other FOX games Saturday night in which the same “viral” promotion was run and handled much more professionally than in Atlanta.

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I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I have to praise Joe Buck for something. Straightforward, explains to the audience what’s going on, and actually markets the product.

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Kenny Albert has a bit more fun with it here, but again makes it clear that they’re promoting a FOX-owned TV show. It really makes you question at this point if somehow FOX forgot to tell Brennaman and Karros that they were running the promo or if they purposefully didn’t let them in on the joke.

(Thanks to @Catatifish for the video.)

In the end, though, FOX’s under-the-radar promotion of a stupid TV show pales in its offensiveness when compared to what ABC pulled after the Indy 500.

Prior to the Indy 500, stunt driver Tanner Foust broke the world record for jumping a truck. I don’t believe it was televised live, but I could be wrong (I was asleep). It was, however, featured prominently in the program that immediately followed the ABC Indy 500 broadcast, something titled “IZOD Presents Hot Wheels Fearless at the 500.” The program purported to be about the preparation for the record-breaking jump, and showed Foust (whose identity was obscured, despite him having completed the jump and having been revealed as the driver hours before) training with “Team Hot Wheels.”

Here’s a screencap of him training from the broadcast:

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Wait, what? Driving an IndyCar upside down?

It didn’t take an eagle eye to recognize immediately that IZOD Presents Hot Wheels Fearless at the 500 was not, as ABC would have you think, a reality program about the preparation for the real-life jump that happened hours earlier, but instead was a fictional program about turning Hot Wheels matchbox cars and tracks into real-life things. See:

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You might say that the obvious actors playing scientists and stunt drivers would give away the fictional nature of the program to anyone who watched it.

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Hey, that’s Mario Andretti! He’s a real person!

The program concluded with a slickly-edited portrayal of the morning’s jump, though urging the audience to go to the program’s Facebook page for the reveal of the driver (which, I noted, had happened to anyone paying attention hours earlier).

Here’s how the show ended:

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Yes, as if you hadn’t figured it out by now, it was all a 30-minute infomercial.

Here are the significant ethical and legal issues with ABC’s broadcast:

1. It conflated actual events with fictionalized ones in a program that was presented as being reality.
2. It violated FTC law.

You might respond to 1. with “okay, but obviously nobody is going to think the upside-down car or the cliffside track were real.” Except Indianapolis’ WISH-TV reported the events as truth:

Hot Wheels also has executed stunts modeled on other toy set concepts, including a cliff drop down a twisty track with steep plunges, and an upside down run that left the driver temporarily unconscious.

That’s extremely troubling. Either the reporter viewed the program and didn’t notice that it was fictional, or ABC/IZOD/Mattel published FALSE PRESS RELEASES ALLEGING FICTIONAL STORIES WAS REAL.

(Hint: Mattel published a press release alleging fictional stories were real.)

Again, that could normally be written off as modern promotional methods except the entire event was based around something that DID happen.

As for FTC rules, they’re extremely clear about infomercials: Advertisers cannot mimic the format of news reports, talk shows, or other independent programming and must clearly disclose THE PROGRAM YOU ARE WATCHING IS A PAID ADVERTISEMENT at the beginning. The program violated both FTC rules.

To conclude, FOX and ABC both committed a severe disservice to their audiences through deceptive tricks and not disclosing the nature of their advertising. In ABC’s case, they broke federal law. We should demand more from our sports media providers.

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