The Illustrated History of Stealth Marketing

Caveat emptor, quia ignorare non debuit quod jus alienum emit.

 (“Let a purchaser beware, for he ought not to be ignorant

of the nature of the property which he is buying from another party.”)

Oxford Reference


Let’s start with two questions.

Question #1: Should you have the right to know when you’re being advertised to?

Question #2: Should you have the right to know who is advertising to you?

Both questions lie, so to speak, at the heart of stealth marketing, which takes the form of product placement, custom content, native advertising, brand journalism, your euphemism goes here. They are all, in the end, ads in sheep’s clothing.

The answer to Question #1 has traditionally been yes, with audiences expecting clear distinctions between advertising and editorial content.

But as we know, tradition is generally out of style nowadays. So myriad media publications have lured myriad marketers (and their myriad marketing dollars) with the promise of ads tricked out as something other than advertising.

The deception is the point for stealth marketers: The less apparent the selling is, the less it triggers the average consumer’s natural resistance to being sold. Rule of thumb: the more opaque the sales pitch, the better.

The interests of reputable publishers, by contrast, run counter to those of stealth marketers: The more that readers/listeners/viewers find themselves duped into mistaking advertising for editorial content, the more a publisher’s integrity and credibility could be eroded.

That tension was neatly captured by legendary media critic A.J. Liebling, who wrote in the 1960s, “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.”

In the 21st century, stealth marketing has come to represent a major source of that money. In 2019, U.S. product placement rang up over $11 billion in spending, while native advertising expenditures in the U.S. approached $53 billion in 2020.

That’s real money for fake content.

As for Question #2, it’s instructive to examine the work of lawyer/lobbyist Rick Berman, who – as CBS’s 60 Minutes reported in 2007 – relishes the nickname “Dr. Evil.”

Berman is in the business of establishing fog-machine front groups to promote corporate interests ranging from the fast food industry to soft drink manufacturers to Big Tobacco to any corporation fighting minimum-wage increases.

Here’s a partial portfolio of Rick Berman’s Potemkin Non-Profits.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s Source Watch characterized Berman’s grift this way.

Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman, represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Berman & Co. has lobbied for companies such as Cracker Barrel, Hooters, International House of Pancakes, Olive GardenOutback SteakhouseRed Lobster, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday’s, Uno’s Restaurants, and Wendy’s.

Berman & Co. operates a network of dozens of front groups, attack-dog web sites, and alleged think tanks that work to counteract minimum wage campaigns, keep wages low for restaurant workers, and to block legislation on food safety, secondhand cigarette smoke, and drunk driving and more. 

In 2013-14, Berman and his Employment Policy Institute “think tank,” have led a national fight against campaigns to raise the minimum wage and to provide paid sick leave for workers with renewed attacks on proponents (including the Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of Sourcewatch), misleading reports, op-eds, TV and radio ads and more.

Source Watch has tons more dirt on Berman if you’re so inclined. You can also review some of Berman’s handiwork elsewhere on this blog, as well as at Sneak Adtack and It’s Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town. Also instructive: Berman’s 2009 tango with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow here and here.

This, however, has to be the quintessential Rick Berman story.

The roll call of Berman’s front groups featured above came from the website, which was dedicated to tracking the corporate gunsel’s endless smoke-screen campaigns.

But somehow, somewhere along the line, Berman co-opted/acquired the BermanExposed URL so that when you go there now, you get this.

To recap: Changing the Debate means not only that Berman is reframing public-policy issues to serve the corporate interests of his clients, but also that he’s turned BermanExposed into BermanSuperimposed.

That’s not even evil. That’s just brilliant.

Then again, let’s step back and play devil’s advocate for a moment.

Take the issue of what Berman’s ads call the Food Police, those government agencies and officials who want to regulate the consumption of trans fats, sugar, salt – anything the public health community deems potentially harmful to the well-being of the average American.

Question #3: Is the role of government regulation regarding individual choices a legitimate issue for debate?

If so, Question #4: How does that debate happen?

Let’s say McDonald’s runs a nationwide advertising campaign that opposes federal restrictions on trans fats. Would the fast-food chain’s argument be taken seriously by the American public, or would it be dismissed as a naked attempt to promote McDonald’s financial interests?

If the issue of government regulation of trans fats is indeed a legitimate subject of debate, wouldn’t the American public be better served if those regulations were opposed by what seemed to be a neutral party – even if, in reality, it wasn’t neutral?

In other words, does Rick Berman’s duplicity actually foster a more worthwhile public debate?

We know: It hurts to say that maybe it does.

But maybe it does.

The Sneak in Review

There has been stealth marketing in American media since the beginning of American media.

As Juliann Sivulka noted in her book Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising, the first known ad in America was embedded in the 1704 Boston News-Letter.

It’s also the first example of native advertising – an ad fashioned to look like the editorial content surrounding it . . .

Find the rest of the hidden war on American consumers at Sneak Adtack.

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2 Responses to The Illustrated History of Stealth Marketing

  1. Hey John!– Interesting post, as always. The story of Rick Berman is even darker than you suggest–and considerably more depressing. Berman’s son was the noted rock musician David Berman, the guiding light behind the cult band Silver Jews. David was deeply ashamed of his father’s hateful shysterism, to the point where he eventually withdrew from making music in order to devote himself full-time to debunking and exposing his father’s work. I’m pretty sure David was a guiding force behind the “Berman Exposed” website. In any case, David’s despair over his father’s activities, combined with other emotional and financial problems, led him to commit suicide in 2019. It is therefore entirely possible that Rick Berman’s coopting of the “Berman Exposed” site was a direct or indirect windfall from his son’s untimely death. How do you like them apples?

    • Campaign Outsider says:

      Sorry I missed this, Second Cousin Curly. For some inexplicable reason it went to spam.

      That’s an amazing story and one I’ll definitely insert into the Illustrated History, with full attribution, of course. Thanks as always for being such a splendid reader.

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