Cafeteria table is set for controversy, some analysts say
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s latest television commercial promoting his ballot agenda is raising eyebrows, at least among sharp-eyed TV viewers.
Is there a subliminal message? An ad within an ad?
The 30-second spot promoting the governor’s ballot initiative to constrain state spending features Schwarzenegger talking to Californians seated around a cafeteria table.
Prominently displayed on the table are bottles of Arrowhead water and Diet Pepsi. In the background are packages of Cheetos, Sun Chips and Ruffles, all Pepsi products and potential targets of Schwarzenegger’s call to ban the sale of “junk food” on school campuses.
In movies and TV series, so-called product placement is the rage, but it is virtually unheard of in political advertising.
The Schwarzenegger camp insists the appearance of products in the ad was merely happenstance. And spokesmen for the companies involved said they did not authorize or pay for the exposure but that they have no objections, either.
Even so, political professionals and academic analysts find the situation curious.
“I have never heard of it,” said Shanto Iyengar, who directs the Political Advertising Lab at Stanford University, “and it would be very bad strategy because people will suggest there’s something untoward here.”
It didn’t take long.
“The governor of California should not be selling corporate products, especially for his corporate donors,” said Carmen Balber of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, whose ArnoldWatch.org Web site is a compendium of outrages that the group attributes to the governor.
The foundation’s Web site identified $30,000 donated by Pepsico to Schwarzenegger campaign committees and a $21,200 contribution to the governor’s 2006 re-election campaign from Joe Weller, chairman of Nestle USA, which the foundation says is Arrowhead’s parent company.
In fact, Arrowhead is a subsidiary of a loosely affiliated but separate company called Nestle Waters. “While it’s true we share a company name, Nestle USA does not sell Arrowhead, Nestle Waters does,” said spokeswoman Jane Lazgin of Nestle Waters.
Political ethicist Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said he had no legal or ethical objections to the ad. He just found it odd.
“I noticed it right away,” he said of the Pepsi and Arrowhead bottles. “It just seemed out of place, in a sense. It distracted from the message.”
Todd Harris, a Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman, said nothing should be read into the arranging of the products in the commercial.
“The reason those particular products were on a table is we were in a cafeteria and that’s what those people bought,” Harris said.
It’s axiomatic among political ad-makers that with only 30 seconds to work with, every frame and every word is precious. And, given his show-business background, Schwarzenegger is known for his meticulousness when it comes to stage-managing.
Given that, many find the claim of randomness hard to swallow.
“Would California’s king of celluloid let an inch of screen or a second of a shot be wasted?” Balber said. “If there’s product placement in an Arnold ad, it’s planned.”
As Democratic media consultant Bill Carrick scrutinized the Schwarzenegger ad for the first time the other day, he said: “That’s classic product placement. If you were doing it for a living, it wouldn’t be as good as this.
“It’s extremely curious, and it’s absolutely, totally against normal advertising procedures.”
Carrick noted that the Pepsi and Arrowhead bottles were situated so the brand names were fully visible to the camera. He said that normally any products used as props in political TV ads would be arranged so that the brands would not be recognizable.
“There’s nothing more irritating than you cut a spot, you go on the air and then the Arrowhead people send you a letter and say, `You’re illegally using our trademark, we’re protesting this and you’ve got to fix it,’ ” he said. “So you end up back in the studio redoing the ad.”
For the most part, Carrick said, companies don’t want to be identified with political spots.
“Usually a product doesn’t want to be in a political ad,” he said. “You’re selling stuff. You don’t want to irritate your Democratic Arrowhead customers or your Democratic Diet Pepsi customers.”
Contact the author John Marelius at: [email protected]