What's an Ad and What's an Underwriting Credit?

The debate about advertising on NPR has been going on for a long time. I jumped into it yesterday when I went to NPR's online music show All Songs Considered and found what looked like an ad for MasterCard. It did not have the familiar (at least to someone who's worked at NPR 20 years) voice of Frank Tavares, the man who has been voicing NPR's corporate underwriting credits for years. It had moving pictures, which I've recently learned is called "Flash," and it looked to me like many other MasterCard ads I've seen in magazines and on television. (You know, "Cost of a vacation to Mars: $30 million. Being able to send your mother-in-law to Mars: priceless.")

I know that for years NPR has worked hard and done lots of audience research to design its "sponsorship" so listeners will not perceive these spots as commercials. That would presumably damage NPR's image as non-commercial (which I just learned is called "brand equity!") and lead to a drop in listener support.

Of course, like pornography, what is and what is not a commercial is subjective. Most people feel they know one when they see/hear one. And that's what happened to me. The MasterCard spot struck me as a commercial. But when I talked to Maria Thomas, NPR's vice president and general manager for digital media, she told me a few things I didn't know. First, how incredibly ignorant I am about the whole world of Web-based news and music programming and all of its attendant "platforms." Also, the voice of the MasterCard spot belongs to another voice-over artist named Joe Gunderman, who is becoming familiar to users of our podcasts. (Note to self, listen to more NPR online and on-demand programs!)

To Thomas, the MasterCard spot does not cross the line on that slippery slope that leads to the eternal damnation of being perceived as "commercial." Actually, on the whole, I don't believe NPR has crossed that line yet either. As a matter of fact, the people in charge of NPR work very hard at figuring out where that line is in the brave new world of online and on-demand programming which, for the first time, allows NPR to use visuals. Jeffrey Dvorkin, our ombudsman, has written about it.

Our Web site is nowhere near as cluttered with commercial junk as other news organizations. And NPR makes sure that the corporate underwriting credits that have moving video can only pop up once per computer in a given period (sparing viewers from being assaulted by them). But that being said, the MasterCard spot had more moving video (oops... Flash!) than any other ad (oops... underwriting credit!) on the site and I was jolted. I wonder if anyone else was.

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