When Americans formally start holiday shopping season on Black Friday, they'll typically be considering issues such as low prices, product quality and customer service when deciding which retailers to patronize and what items to buy. But one group is urging consumers to consider another angle: Companies' advertising practices.
The Parents Television Council, a conservative group which advocates for family-friendly television, is urging shoppers to review its list of what it calls the best and worst TV sponsors this year before they make buying decisions. But what, exactly, makes a "bad" TV sponsor? And should a company's choices about what programs to buy commercial time during be enough to prompt a consumer to pick, for example, Walmart (WMT) (a "best" TV sponsor) over Macy's (M) (one of the "worst")?
The group made a detailed examination of ad buys during the 2009-2010 television season, grading programs on a "traffic light" scale of red (shows may include "gratuitous sex, explicit dialogue, violent content or obscene language), yellow ("may be inappropriate for youngsters") or green (a "family-friendly show"). Its list of worst advertisers includes those companies most likely to advertise on red-coded shows, such Fox's (NWS) block of Sunday evening animated programs, which includes Family Guy and American Dad, notes Melissa Henson, the director of communications for the PTC.
"Most of these companies on worst list were pretty well distributed throughout the red lighted shows," she notes. The worst brands, according to the PTC, include Macy's and YUM! Brands (YUM), the owner of restaurants chains including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Not Much 'Green' in Prime Time
But looking at this week's ratings of prime-time shows from the group, it's hard at first glance to see how an advertiser could win, based on PTC's rating system. From Nov. 19 through Nov. 25, PTC's rating guide for network television doesn't include a single "green light" show: Any advertiser buying prime-time commercials in the lead-up to Black Friday, Nov. 26, would have trouble finding family-friendly programs to sponsor.
Henson counters that some of the unrated programs -- such as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which airs on ABC (DIS) on Thanksgiving night -- are perfectly acceptable, family-appropriate shows, but aren't given green ratings because the group doesn't rank specials. The "best" advertiser list also includes some companies which buy ads on yellow-light shows, such as Fox's The Simpsons, she notes.
The group says it has heard anecdotally that some consumers have been influenced by the list, which it has published in previous years, although Henson notes the PTC isn't calling for a boycott of the worst brands.
Amazon Adds Comparison Shopping App
With so many other factors on consumers' minds, it's unclear whether the PTC's list will have much influence. Other social issues, such as how a retailer treats its employees, have already gained a foothold in the American shopper's consciousness. Walmart, for instance, is rated as one of the PTC's best advertisers, but has drawn frequent criticism for its alleged poor treatment of its workers.
And some of the holiday season's top retailers don't advertise much on television. Take Amazon.com (AMZN), the world's largest e-commerce retailer. Although it rarely advertises on TV, the company is likely to benefit from a projected 11% rise in online holiday sales. Like many retailers in this year's challenging economy, Amazon is relying on low prices to help boost sales. To add to its edge, it introduced an iPhone app this week that lets shoppers compare prices between in-store items and the same items on Amazon, according to Bloomberg News.
That's probably a wise place for Amazon to focus its energy: The National Retail Federation says that its holiday survey found 42% of shoppers said sales or price discounts will be the biggest influence on their purchasing, more than any other factor.
But despite this, the PTC's Henson says the group is hopeful that if prices are equal, consumers will opt to spend their dollars with one of the companies on its "best" list. "There are companies out there like P&G and Walmart who put their money where their mouth is," she says.
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