Advertising between Ads

According to the LA Times, the writer's strike may really be taking its toll:

Firebrand, a media company based in New York, launched the all-commercials-all-the-time show on the ION network (in L.A. on KPXN-TV Channel 30) late Monday with hopes of getting young people to view advertising: as entertainment, not an annoyance. ... The show, called "Firebrand," airs weeknights at 11. On both the show and its sister website, commercial jockeys called CJs introduce the mostly 30-second spots, which are selected by "commercial curators."

The article didn't put it this way, but using advertisements as entertainment (as opposed to merely making ads entertaining) appears to be something of a trend. Also, me crying at my desk is now something of a trend.

Posted by Charles Star on December 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Study: Baby Vids make you dumber

Babylaptopcomputer We blogged a while back about how the makers of Baby Einstein and their ilk make ridiculous claims about the educational value of their products.

BabyFirstTV "Encourages children to develop language through introduction to words, signs, and languages from around the world."

Baby Einstein "foster(s) the development of your toddler's speech and language skills."

Finally, someone has formally studied the effects of baby vids on language development and, as we suspected, the results aren't pretty. The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, infants ages 8 to 16 months who watched baby vids were found to have significantly reduced vocabularies; and the more they watched, the less they knew. For every hour per day spent in front of the tube, the infants scores on a language text dropped precipitously. (Download a pdf proof of the study here.)

The study, based on a survey of 1,008 parents, didn't measure causal relationships. So it's possible that parents who allow their infants to watch videos are less involved and less communicative than those who don't. No connection between videos and vocabularies was found among an older group, kids 17 months to 24 months.

Still, the drop in language skills was so strong among infants that the study should give pause to those who think propping up little Sophie in front of the tube is going to come without costs. Considering the cost of education these days, a real live babysitter may be cheaper than they think.

(Via Campaign for a Commercialfree Childhood)

Posted by carrie on August 7, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (7)

Condom-free TV?

Pigscondomtrojan In the latest morality play from the Puritans that run network television, CBS and Fox are refusing to air certain ads for Trojan condoms. Because they won't show advertising for condoms? No, because they won't show ads for condoms that promote fucking. In the words of a Fox memo, “Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.” So sayeth the network that gave us five seasons of The Simple Life.

CBS deemed the ads "inappropriate... even with only-late-night restrictions," even though the idea of picking up women to have sex seems to be Barney's raison d'etre. Not to mention that either the subtext of Two and a Half Men is that Charlie Sheen is desperately trying to have a baby or CBS needs to reexamine its priorities also.

(Via AdFreak)

Posted by Charles Star on June 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Uh, Cartoon Network…You're Supposed to Pay for Advertising.

Did Cartoon Network's marketing team learn nothing from their Aqua Teen Hunger Force Boston bomb scare debacle? The one that resulted in $2 million in fines and the resignation of the network's general manager? (Not to mention that the eventual ATHF movie was a bigger bomb than any device planted in Beantown.)

And now they're resorting to splog. This week, I checked in on the messageboard for the band the db's, where I had once before uncovered corporate comment spam. There was now another very random posting which asked:

Does anyone watch Storm Hawks? It’s on Mondays on CN… does anyone remember if it’s the cute girl Piper who rides the heliscooter or if it’s the big strong guy, Junko? My friends and I all watched the first episode, but no one can agree.

I poked around on the Internet and found the same sentences posted on several other sites. Digging deeper, I found dozens of web pages with this alternate text:

Did anyone catch Storm Hawks on Cartoon Network? I watched it, and I was impressed by the way it looked! The animation was really smooth, but it looked like they used CGI too to make it look more realistic. What did anyone else think?

And who knows which other variations are out there. Listen, Cartoon Network, I know it's hard to grab the kids' attention these days. I know you have to think "outside the box." And I know you probably have a $2 million hole in your marketing budget. But show an ounce of class and try to play by the rules. Or else you're going to spend a lot more time in court, and attorney-at-law Harvey Birdman won't be able to help you.

Posted by Jack Silbert on June 17, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (7)

NCAA Says "Don't Promote Our Product"

Apparently not content with the miniscule coverage given to college baseball, the NCAA has decided that it prefers "virtually zero." A reporter for the largest newspaper in Kentucky was thrown out of a University of Louisville game in the College World Series because "it is against NCAA policies" to liveblog the game. It remains to be seen how much liveblogging this actually stops because NCAA policy only prevents him from liveblogging from the event - and the event was broadcast nationally, live. Also, someone in the crowd might own a PDA.

A lot of people are accusing the NCAA of copyright enforcement thuggery but I think that the NCAA is actually just being the ultimate internet purist: bloggers don't belong in the press box; they should be at home in their pajamas.

(Via CSTB)

Posted by Charles Star on June 12, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Letterman's Best Joke

Last night I turned on the Late Show with David Letterman* on in the middle of a pleasantly not-annoying interview with Nicole Ritchie. At the end of the interview, Letterman said that his next guest after the commercial break would be Artie Lange. I'm a fan, so I decided to stick around. That is when I was taken hostage by CBS. Here is a timeline of what I watched, waiting for Artie:

     1:00 - Levitra - Good timing. Between Ritchie and Lange, no erection for a week.
     0:15 - Mastercard
     0:15 - OnStar with Kelly Ripa
     0:30 - Surf's Up
     0:15 - Big Brother 8 promo - 8! I didn't even know that was still on here.
     0:30 - Verizon something or other, with a Fantastic 4/Silver Surfer tie in
     0:30 - Terminix - Is that Jack McBrayer playing a cabinet?
     0:30 - Verizon FiOS
     1:30 - Abe Lincoln Movie Reviews - An actual segment.
     0:30 - Ford F-15 Trucks - They claim to have stronger engine bolts. Convincing!
     0:30 - A real estate agency that I've never heard of.**
     0:10 - Late Late Show promo
     0:20 - Pirate Master promo - Seriously? It's like a prank on the cast and audience.
     0:30 -
     0:15 - Norelco
     0:15 - Pirates of the Carribean 3 - Sorry, Johnny. I'm going to watch Pirate Master.
     0:20 - CSI promo
     0:30 - Tuberculosis Traveler - A segment brought to you by Black & Decker.
     0:30 - MetLife
     0:30 - Mazda CX-9
     0:30 - Die Hard 4
     0:30 - iPhone
     0:30 -
     0:20 - AFI's 100 Greatest Movies promo
     0:05 - Late Show bumper - Did you forget the show?
     0:30 - Iams pet food

That's twelve minutes of ads in between the Nicole Ritchie interview and the Artie Lange interview. Out of those 12 minutes of "programming," 8:30 were commercials, 1:25 were in-house promotion, and 2:05 were Late Show. Of the 2:05 that was actually the Late Show, 35 seconds were really commercials.

I have no idea how anybody could regularly watch this show without an assist from a DVR.

* NB: I would kill someone unimportant at Eddie Brill's request to be booked on Letterman. This may turn out to be a very bad idea.

** I got the time down by rewinding on my DVR and retaping with my camcorder. I was only taping for timestamps and didn't focus well enough to see the name of the agency. Not that you care.

Posted by Charles Star on June 7, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Welcome to Tomorrowland, Now Jew-Free

AlmickeyIf you wanted to convince the youth of your nation to take up arms in the struggle for independence and the eradication of Jews, is there a better spokesperson than Mickey Mouse? Hamas doesn't think so, and has a children's show starring "Farfour," who sports a familiar look.

The Walt Disney Co. is not happy, but Walt probably isn't thawing himself over this.

As an aside, the SkyNews report about Disney Co.'s reaction closes with the best throwaway line ever:

Farfour also tells children to drink their milk and pray.

(Thanks, Bernardo!)

UPDATE: Hamas has agreed to temporarily shelve the program while it is "under review." Probably to focus on DVD sales.

Posted by Charles Star on May 9, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Closed-Caption Cover-Up

Sometimes my role as a Luddite assists in my more prominent role as defender of the underdog. In this instance, the underdogs in question are users of television's closed-captioning feature. (This group consists of the hearing impaired, viewers of any BBC series, and hammered fans in loud sports bars.)

I was watching a VHS tape of the final episode of the sadly ignored sitcom, Andy Barker, P.I. No, I don't have TiVo or DVR. Yes, I could've watched the episode ("The Lady Varnishes") online, but since a friend had been kind enough to record it for me, I felt obliged to watch the tape.

Unfortunately, my friend is even more technologically inept than me, and the recording's sound quality was dreadful. More than once, I had to revert to those trusty closed captions to catch a particularly garbled word.

Imagine my shock, then, when reviewing a scene in subtitle mode, to read that the background music was Def Leppard's "Photograph." Any student of mid-80's top-40 hard rock—and I include myself in these shameful ranks—could instantly recognize the actual audio, "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by Scorpions.

Oh, sure, maybe the episode was submitted for captioning before the music had been switched. Or maybe that caption guy just likes to sneak in the word "def" as often as possible. Well, let it be known: I'm watching you, caption guy. And I'm watching you with the captions on.

Posted by Jack Silbert on April 23, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (5)

Does TV contribute to autism?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today about a Cornell economist, Michael Waldman, who has done some fancy math linking TV use to autism [orig. paper here]. Whether Waldman is on to something remains to be seen. His statistics don't come close to proving that early TV watching causes autism. He has only found that rates of autism diagnosis tend to be higher when kids are raised in periods of heavy rain and snowy weather, and in places where cable-TV subscriptions are high. And his paper is unpublished. Still, it's good to see someone with a brain like his asking questions.

Unfortunately, many autism experts disagree. That they doubt the merit of Waldman's research is natural and fair; his work is as-of-yet untested. But they actually seem to resent the fact that Waldman is even raising the TV question.

"Whenever there is a fad in autism, what people unfortunately fail to see is how parents suffer," says [Ami] Klin [at the Yale Child Study Center]."

"This is junk science," says Alison Singer, parent of an autistic child and serior vice president of Autism Speaks. "Autism is a genetic disoder. The only thing the parents do wrong is they have bad genes."


"I think this is irresponsible," says Klin. "We should not provide clinical advice unless there is scientific evidence to substantiate it."

But, really, what's the clinical advice here?  Don't let your toddlers watch a lot of TV? Perhaps someone should tell Dr. Klin that the American Academy of Pediatrics long ago established guidelines recommending no television for kids under 2 (and substantial limits on TV-time for older children). 

Is an Economist Qualified
To Solve Puzzle of Autism?
Professor's Hypothesis:
Rainy Days and TV
May Trigger Condition
February 27, 2007; Page A1

In the spring of 2005, Cornell University economist Michael Waldman noticed a strange correlation in Washington, Oregon and California. The more it rained or snowed, the more likely children were to be diagnosed with autism.
[Michael Waldman]

To most people, the observation would have been little more than a riddle. But it soon led Prof. Waldman to conclude that something children do more during rain or snow -- perhaps watching television -- must influence autism. Last October, Cornell announced the resulting paper in a news release headlined, "Early childhood TV viewing may trigger autism, data analysis suggests."

Prof. Waldman's willingness to hazard an opinion on a delicate matter of science reflects the growing ambition of economists -- and also their growing hubris, in the view of critics. Academic economists are increasingly venturing beyond their traditional stomping ground, a wanderlust that has produced some powerful results but also has raised concerns about whether they're sometimes going too far.

Ami Klin, director of the autism program at the Yale Child Study Center, says Prof. Waldman needlessly wounded families by advertising an unpublished paper that lacks support from clinical studies of actual children. "Whenever there is a fad in autism, what people unfortunately fail to see is how parents suffer," says Dr. Klin. "The moment you start to use economics to study the cause of autism, I think you've crossed a boundary."

Prof. Waldman, who thinks television restriction may have helped rescue his own son from autism, says many noneconomists don't understand the methods he used. His paper recommends that parents keep young children away from television until more rigorous studies can be done. "I've gotten a lot of nasty emails," he says. "But if people aren't following up on this, it's a crime."

Such debates are likely to grow as economists delve into issues in education, politics, history and even epidemiology. Prof. Waldman's use of precipitation illustrates one of the tools that has emboldened them: the instrumental variable, a statistical method that, by introducing some random or natural influence, helps economists sort out questions of cause and effect. Using the technique, they can create "natural experiments" that seek to approximate the rigor of randomized trials -- the traditional gold standard of medical research.

Instrumental variables have helped prominent researchers shed light on sensitive topics. Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has studied the cost of war, the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt has examined the effect of adding police on crime, and Harvard's Caroline Hoxby has studied school performance. Their work has played an important role in public-policy debates.

But as enthusiasm for the approach has grown, so too have questions. One concern: When economists use one variable as a proxy for another -- rainfall patterns instead of TV viewing, for example -- it's not always clear what the results actually measure. Also, the experiments on their own offer little insight into why one thing affects another.

"There's a saying that ignorance is bliss," says James Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on statistical methods. "I think that characterizes a lot of the enthusiasm for these instruments." Says MIT economist Jerry Hausman, "If your instruments aren't perfect, you could go seriously wrong."

By suggesting that something within parents' control could be triggering autism, Prof. Waldman has reopened old wounds in the realm of autism research, which is littered with debunked theories linking the disorder to the family environment.

"This is junk science," says Alison Singer, parent of an autistic child and senior vice president of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit founded by former NBC Universal Chief Executive Bob Wright. "Autism is a genetic disorder. The only thing the parents do wrong is they have bad genes."

The term "autism" describes a spectrum of diagnoses with symptoms that may include impaired language skills, difficulty understanding social cues, and an obsession with routine or repetitive actions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as one in 150 children in certain parts of the U.S. have some form of autism.

Studies in recent decades have shown the proportion of children with autism growing, though researchers aren't sure the disorder has actually become more prevalent. Greater awareness, broadening definitions of the disorder and the availability of special-education programs may have made parents more likely to get their children diagnosed.

Over the years, attempts to understand the affliction have been tough on parents. One of the earliest, the "refrigerator mother" theory, blamed autism on a lack of maternal affection. Popularized by celebrity psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the theory survived from the 1940s until the late 1960s, virtually demonizing mothers of autistic children until more-careful studies failed to support the idea. More recently, a scare about measles vaccinations stirred anxiety, but large studies have shown no link to autism.

Most researchers now recognize that heredity plays a central role in autism, and they are making progress in identifying the genes responsible. They're also looking into the possibility of interaction with environmental factors, both in the womb and after birth.

Some experts think that in reaction to the discredited theories the pendulum has swung too far away from the family. "The discussion of the role of the family, and social interaction within the family, is virtually taboo," says Anna Baumgaertel, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She says some of her autistic patients have been heavy video and TV watchers since birth -- a factor she thinks "may lead to autistic behavior in susceptible children, because it interferes with the development of 'live' auditory, visual, and social experience."

Prof. Waldman, a recognized expert in the field of applied microeconomics, doesn't pretend to be an authority on autism. He became engrossed in the subject in the fall of 2003, when his 2-year-old son, David, was identified as having an autism-spectrum disorder. Hoping to eliminate any potential triggers, Prof. Waldman supplemented the recommended therapy with a sharp reduction in television watching. His son had started watching more TV in the summer before the diagnosis, after a baby sister was born.

Prof. Waldman says his son improved within six months and today has fully recovered -- a surprising result, given that autism is typically a lifetime affliction. "When I saw the rapid progress, which was certainly not what anyone had been predicting, I became very curious as to whether television watching might have played a role in the onset of the disorder," he says. He tried to get medical researchers interested in the idea, to no avail.

In late 2004, he decided to look into the subject himself, ultimately putting together a research team with Cornell health economist Sean Nicholson and Nodir Adilov, a professor of economics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne.

In principle, the best way to figure out whether television triggers autism would be to do what medical researchers do: randomly select a group of susceptible babies at birth to refrain from television, then compare their autism rate to a similar control group that watched normal amounts of TV. If the abstaining group proved less likely to develop autism, that would point to TV as a culprit.

Economists usually have neither the money nor the access to children needed to perform that kind of experiment. More broadly, randomized trials seldom lend themselves to studying economic questions, particularly the more traditional ones. It would be unfair to randomly subject some people to a higher tax rate just to see how it affects their spending.

Instead, economists look for instruments -- natural forces or government policies that do the random selection for them. First developed in the 1920s, the technique helps them separate cause and effect. Establishing whether A causes B can be difficult, because often it could go either way. If television watching were shown to be unusually prevalent among autistic children, it could mean either that television makes them autistic or that something about being autistic makes them more interested in TV.

The ideal instrument is a variable that is correlated with A but has no direct effect of its own on B. It should also have no connection to other factors that might cause B. If data in a study nonetheless show that the instrumental variable is linked to B, it suggests that A must be contributing to B.

Take a question Prof. Angrist of MIT sought to answer: Did service during the Vietnam War have a negative effect on people's future earnings? It wouldn't be enough to say that people who served ended up poorer. Perhaps a lack of opportunities in the civilian world made them more likely to enlist in the first place.

As an instrumental variable, Prof. Angrist chose the draft lottery, which made some people more likely than others to serve in the Vietnam-era military, but didn't have any connection to their initial circumstances. On average, white men whose low lottery numbers made them draft-eligible had much lower earnings many years later. (The data on nonwhites were inconclusive.) In a seminal 1990 paper, Prof. Angrist concluded that conscription had a detrimental effect on future earnings.

"Economic research is becoming more empirical and in some ways more like clinical research in medicine," says Prof. Angrist. "I think it's a wonderful thing. It's a sign of the extent to which economics has become more of a science and less of an exercise in formal abstraction like philosophy or mathematics."

Chicago's Prof. Levitt tackled police staffing and crime. That's an issue where cause and effect are hard to disentangle because cities with many criminals are likely to have more police, but that doesn't mean an excess of officers causes crime. Prof. Levitt took advantage of the fact that mayors and governors tend to put more police on the streets in election years. Using election cycles, he concluded in a 1997 paper that adding police reduces violent crime.

Prof. Waldman and his colleagues had such studies in mind when they approached autism and TV. By putting together weather data and government time-use studies, they found that children tended to spend more time in front of the television when it rained or snowed. Precipitation became the group's instrumental variable, because it randomly selected some children to watch more TV than others.

The researchers looked at detailed precipitation and autism data from Washington, Oregon and California -- states where rain and snowfall tend to vary a lot. They found that children who grew up during periods of unusually high precipitation proved more likely to be diagnosed with autism. A second instrument for TV-watching, the percentage of households that subscribe to cable, produced a similar result. Prof. Waldman's group concluded that TV-watching could be a cause of autism.

Criticism quickly arose, illustrating some of the perils of the economists' approach. For one, instruments are often too blunt. As Prof. Waldman concedes, precipitation could be linked to a lot of factors other than TV-watching -- such as household mold -- that could be imagined to trigger autism. At best, his data reflect the effect of television on those children who changed their habits because of rain or snow, not on those who did it for other reasons such as a desire to watch educational shows.

"It is just too much of a stretch to tie this to television-watching," says Joseph Piven, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina. "Why not tie it to carrying umbrellas?"

Also, Prof. Waldman's findings do nothing to explain the mechanism by which television would influence autism, a gap that instrumental variables are inherently unable to fill. That's one reason many autism researchers think he shouldn't have publicized his results or made recommendations to parents. "I think this is irresponsible," says Dr. Klin of Yale. "We should not provide clinical advice unless there is scientific evidence to substantiate it."

To those who wonder about the autistic children who never watched TV or who had clear problems before they started watching, Prof. Waldman responds that his hypothesis isn't meant to be all-inclusive. "Even if we are correct, there are likely other triggers and possibly some children become autistic even in the absence of any trigger," he says.

David Card, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has done influential work on the minimum wage, fears that the fascination with the instrumental-variables technique "leads to interest in topics that economists are not particularly well-trained to study."

Those who favor the method say it's just one tool among many -- all of which have flaws -- and is intended to help fill in the picture. Prof. Angrist, for example, readily acknowledges his Vietnam study applies only to those whom the draft forced to serve in the military, not to those who signed up voluntarily, and needs to be looked at in tandem with other work on the economic effects of military service.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has started a project to test Prof. Waldman's methods and results. Prof. Waldman welcomes the scrutiny, saying he hopes his work will also provoke autism researchers to conduct clinical trials.

"Obviously this is an unusual thing for an economist to be looking at," says Prof. Waldman. "Maybe I was overconfident. We'll see."

Posted by carrie on February 27, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (15)

Welcome to Jack's Blog About Commercials I Didn't Fast-Forward Through

Or maybe the rest of the Stay Free team went camping and didn't invite me? Anyway, tonight I fast-forwarded all the way to the end of a commercial, and then went all the way back. Because at the end was the logo for the University of Phoenix, or as I like to call it,
Banner-Ad U. Surely you have seen more than your fair share of Internet advertising for this college offering "web-based education" and 72 "campuses" in 36 states, Canada, and Puerto Rico. (Sorry, irony fans: There is a campus in Phoenix, Arizona.) But this ad was on television. Which I am luddite enough to consider real advertising.

Perhaps equally troubling, the commercial is set to the insanely catchy New Pornographers' song "The Bleeding Heart Show." If America's favorite Canadian indie-pop supergroup had to sell out, did it have to be to the University of Phoenix? Though who knows, perhaps they all hold degrees from the Vancouver or Calgary branches.

My head is still spinning. The U. of Phoenix is gaining students, and I'm losing my faculties.

Posted by Jack Silbert on January 24, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (7)