Who among us has not fallen prey to a prank?
And yet, Denver7’s “Mile High Living” fell so hard for a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” prank that the impact could practically be heard on the moon.
During a Sunday, May 23, segment on Oliver’s HBO show called “Spon$ored Content,” the host and comic attacked the blurry advertorial lines that separate news and sponsored content — particularly shows and products that buy time on TV news channels.
To be fair, most media websites (including The Denver Post) also feature at-times-confusing content designed to look like news stories. That includes alt-weeklies like Westword, which first reported on the local angle. But few of us are tricked into running paid advertising for fake products in print, online or on-air.
“Right now, it’s far too easy to make a ridiculous product that makes outlandish claims and get it onto local TV,” Oliver says in the clip (see below). ” And the reason I know is we did.”
Oliver and his Emmy-winning team set up a fake company called Venus Inventions, which makes the Venus Veil, “an absurd medical product based on technology that absolutely doesn’t exist,” he said. The phony website and testimonial provided by an actor was enough to trick shows into letting an actor (dubbed “Erika Hernandez”) onto Zoom calls and TV shows, where she “brandigrated” the product.
One of them was Denver7 (a.k.a. The Denver Channel), on a May 20 episode of “Mile High Living” that featured “the world’s first sexual health blanket” — purportedly using magnets to increase blood flow to the genitals.
After we reached out for comment, Denver Channel’s Dean Littleton, vice president and general manager of the station, shared this statement with The Denver Post on Monday: “Denver7 takes the integrity of our content very seriously. We create clear distinctions between local TV news programming and local TV non-news lifestyle programming, including using non-news employees and clearly identifying sponsorships in non-news shows.
“Our non-news shows were created to help support local businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for new ways to market their products, and we believe our viewers understand the differences. … We are vetting our review processes for non-news segments to ensure our staff follows the proper standards.”
It appears those standards had either been ignored or forgotten in the Venus Veil segment. But it wasn’t just a goof; it was a stunt designed with a serious point in mind. It tricked a medical correspondent in Utah into pimping it, as well as a station in Austin, Texas, and showed just how shockingly easy it is to get bogus products aired in and around local TV news.
Despite FCC rules dictating the separation of editorial and advertising content (i.e., the journalistic separation of church and state), Oliver said many local stations have either completely broken those rules or violated the spirit of them through the widespread paid-product deals.
Oliver runs through videos of other people getting paid to hawk “horrifying products” on local TV network affiliates, particularly medically dubious products. In addition to the Venus Veil, “Mile High Living” also featured in 2019 the laser-based Mona Lisa Touch, “the first FDA-cleared laser to treat the vagina.” The only problem? The FDA a year earlier had declared this class of “energy-based” products to be dangerous.
But the coup de grace was the Venus Veil, which looks like (and is) a plain, gray blanket slung over the “Mile High Living” couch. Host Gina Belich nods and smiles in the clip, even agreeing with the actor when she says, “Thanks for making it so easy.” (Oof!)
The Denver stunt cost a mere $2,800, Oliver says, “and, sadly on some stations, it didn’t even look that out of place … . To the owners of these stations who are selling them out at a depressingly cheap price, I have a simple question: … The (expletive) are you doing?!”
In case Coloradans feel picked on, Oliver’s HBO show is constantly featuring local news investigations in its stories. But if you want to see the embarrassing stuff, skip to the 11:20 mark in the video below, when the Denver-related content begins, or 16:20, when the Denver7 takedown arrives.
“People trust the local station,” Oliver says. “That’s the point here.”
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