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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The line between advertising and TV programming, these days, is blurry to say the least. Nobody is surprised to see brands blatantly advertised in sitcoms, dramas, reality shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "BONES")

MICHAELA CONLIN: Oh, the Prius helps you stay in your lane.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "GLEE")

MATTHEW MORRISON: These are first-class tickets on American Airlines. How did you afford them?

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PROJECT RUNWAY")

TIM GUNN: I am delighted to introduce Chris Webb, lead color designer for Saturn, who's here to tell you about your challenge.

CHRIS WEBB: Thank you, Tim. How you doing?

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Nothing subtle about the placement of those products. They're clips from the TV shows "Project Runway," "Glee" and "Bones." It turns out that kind of embedded name-dropping isn't enough for advertisers. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The name of this show alone got our attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY YARD GOES DISNEY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is "My Yard Goes Disney."

BLAIR: "My Yard Goes Disney." In this reality show, designers from Disney theme parks do things to people's yards that make them really popular with their kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY YARD GOES DISNEY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our team of welders went to work, creating a Tinkerbell-inspired bird cage and swing.

BLAIR: So how did we get to the point where an entire TV series would shamelessly promote one corporation? Brian Steinberg, a writer for Advertising Age, says partly because people just aren't watching commercials anymore.

BRIAN STEINBERG: People are tired of seeing commercials. They see an awful lot of them. And now they have the means to avoid them with DVRs, when you're watching on the web or iTunes. They know how to get rid of them, or avoid them, or zap them out of existence.

BLAIR: So advertisers are looking for other ways to get their names out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

BRIGITTE NGUYEN: I'm Brigitte Nguyen, and today I'm at Pillsbury in Minneapolis.

BLAIR: On The Cooking Channel there's a show that takes viewers inside the test kitchens of major food companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

NGUYEN: And the Pillsbury bakeoff contest is a tasty America tradition...

BLAIR: "From The Kitchens Of" was developed in partnership with companies like Pillsbury and Hillshire Farms, says Michael Smith, The Cooking Channel's general manager.

MICHAEL SMITH: The companies have always recognized that one of the best ways to move the needle with consumers is to show your products in a context where they're really engaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "FROM THE KITCHENS OF")

NGUYEN: And then I have the Jimmy Dean Hearty Sausage Crumble...

BLAIR: Smith says the advertisers share in the production costs. On top of that, they agree to buy advertising spots across The Cooking Channel's schedule. He says in focus groups, "From The Kitchens Of" gets high marks.

SMITH: Only about a third of the people perceive the show as being an advertiser-sponsored or advertiser-paid-for show. Sixty-five percent thought it was a regular cooking show.

ROBERT WEISSMANN: The basic rules are you can't deceive consumers and consumers must know when they're being advertised to.

BLAIR: Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group. He's been arguing for years that, when a company pays to have their products embedded into regular programming, there needs to be some kind of visible disclosure when those products appear. He says it's really troubling when shows that seem to be disguised as advertisements target children.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MY LITTLE PONY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) My little pony, my little pony...

BLAIR: This is a whole TV series built around My Little Pony toys. The series is on the new cable channel The Hub. The Hub is a joint venture between Hasbro, the makers of My Little Pony, and Discovery Communications. Many of the shows are built around Hasbro products, like GI Joe and Scrabble. Weissman thinks the whole business is nefarious.

WEISSMANN: Because kids are much more vulnerable to advertisng and marketing tricks. Young children, particularly, don't know that they're even being advertised to at all.

BLAIR: The Hub's CEO, Margaret Loesch, was unavailable to record an interview, but in an email, insists that these shows are entertainment, not commercials, and points out that virtually every successful children's TV show has had toys or merchandise attached to it.

Meantime, The Cooking Channel is gearing up for another season of "From the Kitchens Of." Michael Smith says all of the advertisers - from Kellogg's to Kenmore - are coming back.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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