Does Rush Limbaugh defend the Heritage Foundation's unfortunate dabbling in a health care reform in the 1990s because he truly believes the think tank is "the gold standard" or because the organization sponsors his show for $2 million a year? Product placement is tricky in a non-visual medium like radio, and even trickier when your product is a series of abstract ideas and policy proposals. But some right-leaning think tanks have found a way to do that, by paying conservative talk radio hosts like Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck for "embedded ads," which seamlessly weave endorsements of their institution into what sounds like regular content, Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel and Lucy McCalmont report. Heritage paid about $1.3 million last year to sponsor Sean Hannity's show; FreedomWorks has a $1.4 million with Beck. Americans for Prosperity wouldn't offer details on the deal it's had with Levin since last summer.
Radio hosts have long had deals to endorse some product or another, but there's something slightly less unsettling about a maybe-maybe-not paid for statement like "I love Diet Coke" than "I support the this specific tax proposal." There's no chance that a soda endorsement will trickle up through the national debate and result in some kind of soda regulation. Beck himself showed a bit of discomfort with the deal, it seems, during this segment from earlier this year:
"This is a new thing from FreedomWorks and by the way, they are sponsor of this program and I have a commercial to do for them in, well, in just a few minutes. I don’t think they’re going to get one because this is pretty much it... But it is something that I believe in, I'm not saying this because they’re paying me to do a commercial in a couple of minutes. This is something that I think is absolutely critical."
Heritage pioneered the strategy in 2008; the think tanks say it's a way to reach out to their core audience, Politico reports. But the radio hosts are not the only ones who've put their endorsements up for sale. Last week, Politico's Ben Smith reported that Human Events Group sent out an email advertising RedState blogger Erick Erickson's as available for endorsements. The email read, "Erick Erickson's reputation along with his rising profile, combine to make RedState the most influential conservative blog on Capitol Hill and across America... Why not put Erick's influence to work for your organization?" It offered features like "Erick's Video Endorsement (subject to final approval by Erick)." Erickson pushed back on RedState, writing, "No, my endorsements are not for sale."
But Human Events has a less-than-stellar history when it comes to endorsements, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf writes. The publication has sent out advertising emails for a very suspicious German miracle cancer cure banned in America. The email says in part,
Incredible as it sounds, Germany's top cancer doctors literally "cook" cancer out of your body while you sleep - and you wake up without any bad side effects. Yes, you heard me right: no bad side effects. No loss of hair, no vomiting, and no nausea... Yet the American medical establishment hides the amazing German cancer cure from you.
Friedersdorf explains his problem with the ad:
It is important to know that the publication is largely read by older Americans who feel as though they've been betrayed and lied to by the mainstream media. It inhabits a media world I associate with my grandparents. ... If you've had a grandparent who is averse to doctors and actually dreading American cancer treatments... well, that ad just doesn't seem okay.