John Oliver tricks local stations into running fake blanket segment

John Oliver believes local television stations are selling themselves out by running ads designed as news — and to prove it, he successfully bought his way onto local lifestyle programs aired on three television stations in Colorado, Texas and Utah.

The trick was part of a broader segment on the practice of sponsored content in which an advertiser agrees to purchase a segment of airtime during a locally-produced show — typically a morning or late evening lifestyle program — in order to promote their product or service in a way that is designed to look like a legitimate news segment.

Federal regulators require local broadcast stations to disclose when a segment aired on a program contains paid sponsorship, but few stations comply with this requirement or do so in a way that makes it difficult for viewers to gauge what is news and what is an advertisement.

Worse, local stations apparently don’t scrutinize the products that are being promoted during their broadcasts, Oliver noted. To further this point, the production team at Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” hired an actress to promote a fake sexual wellness blanket called the “Venus Veil,” then pitched a segment on the blanket to various news outlets across the country.

The pitch was supplemented with a website, VenusInventions.com, that contained fake wellness information and testimonials from people who supposedly tried the blanket. The website also contained a privacy policy dated in early April in order to make the product and the company behind it look like the real thing.

At least three television stations jumped at the opportunity to feature the Venus Veil on their programs: Scripps-owned KMGH (Channel 7) in Denver; TEGNA-owned KVUE (Channel 24) in Austin, Texas; and Nexstar-owned KTVX (Channel 4) in Salt Lake City. All three stations are affiliated with ABC.

At least one of the stations uploaded the clip to their website, which was later syndicated to Yahoo! News and MSN News, according to a search conducted by The Desk on Monday.

Last Week Tonight revealed that it paid a little over $7,000 to pitch the fake blanket across the three television stations, with the Utah station demanding the least amount of money (less than $2,000) for a segment that lasted just under four minutes.

None of the three stations have addressed the segments that aired, but they have been slowly pulling clips from their websites and social media accounts since early Monday morning.

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.