One of the sad truths of the modern media business is the prevalence of sponsored content. It can be crucial in keeping outlets alive, even well-known legacy institutions. And although there are some pretty strict guidelines regulating how sponsored content can be produced and positioned, such as disclosing on-air or in the body of a piece that it’s promotional, it’s easy to follow the letter of the law while also minimizing that disclosure. There’s not nearly enough transparency in the process, and the result can be segments or articles full of unquestioned claims and misleading information, all capitalizing on the credibility of whatever media outlet is getting paid.
John Oliver focuses on the prevalence of sponsored content in this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, specifically on its ubiquity within the world of local news. Local news is still vital, both for TV stations, which make a significant portion of their money from the news, and also for the community. As local stations have been gobbled up by national TV companies, though, sponsored content has become an increasingly common way to maximize profits. These segments exploit the integrity and the relationship with the community that these stations have built up throughout their existence, selling out that credibility for usually just a few thousand dollars at a time.
Most pernicious is the sponsored content where doctors or other so-called health experts promote shady products or treatments. As Oliver shows, local stations are far too eager to sell airtime in the guise of news segments for patently nonsensical “medical” devices. To really hammer down on the problem, Last Week Tonight made up an absolutely absurd “sexual wellness blanket” and plugged it on three different local news broadcasts. In every case a news anchor or medical correspondent lets Last Week Tonight’s actress make ridiculous claims about the blanket’s ability to enhance people’s sex lives, without challenging any of them or asking any critical questions.
This has obviously been a terrible century for media. It’s almost impossible to make good money doing this, especially for local outlets that focus on a single community. Still, as Oliver expounds upon, the most valuable thing these stations have is their integrity, and selling that out to promote a dodgy tool that claims to produce boners through acoustic waves will have some serious long-term negative effects, both for these stations and their viewers.
Check out the full segment below. Oh, George Clooney’s also in it. It’s funny. For real!