Bowls and Balls

Football's Flutie a Wheaties Flunky

Submitted by Daniel Price on
Clients: General Mills
Release Date: September 2006
Aired By: 2 stations
Disclosed By: No stations

It's true that no one would think a news segment on the "Wheaties Fit To Win Challenge" was investigative reporting. But viewers would not assume that every second of video in that segment came directly from a public relations firm hired by General Mills to promote its Wheaties brand cereal, either.

In September 2006, the broadcast PR firm Medialink Worldwide released a video news release (VNR) from General Mills titled, "Don't Be a Couch Potato." The VNR features soundbites from former pro quarterback Doug Flutie and nutritionist Jean Storlie. It also includes several shots of Wheaties brand cereal, as well as the General Mills "Fit to Win" website.

After stating that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, VNR narrator and Medialink publicist Mike Morris says, "Successful dieters—those who lose weight and keep it off—regularly eat breakfast." Both assertions have been challenged by nutritionists, who think that "it may be more healthful for adults to skip breakfast, as long as they eat carefully the rest of the day," as the Los Angeles Times reported on September 18, 2006.

Art Fennell apparently does not read the Los Angeles Times. One week after the newspaper ran its story disputing the value of breakfast, on September 26, the CN8 (Philadelphia, PA) news show "Art Fennell Reports" aired an edited and re-voiced version of the General Mills VNR.

"Ever wish you could work out with a pro athlete to really get the goods on what it takes to get and stay fit?" asked CN8 consumer reporter Janet Zappala. "Doug Flutie may be your man. He's heading up a web-based fitness program called the Wheaties Fit To Win Challenge." At the end of the segment, Zappala directed viewers to a General Mills website,

On September 18, WUHF-31 (Rochester, NY) also aired an edited and re-voiced version of the General Mills VNR [Quicktime - 1.0 MB]. The station's John Kucko did mention that Flutie is a "part-time pitch man for Wheaties," and when Flutie spoke, the on-screen identifier read, "Wheaties spokesman." Just in case viewers hadn't noticed the product being promoted, WUHF-31's Kucko appeared at the end of the segment, holding a box of the cereal. "Did you eat your Wheaties today?" he asked.

Viewers might well have asked if he had disclosed any VNRs being broadcast that day. The answer for both stations airing the General Mills VNR, WUHF-31 and CN8, is no.

Unfortunately, for CN8, that's par for the course. The station aired four other VNRs described in this study—from Nelson's Rescue Sleep, Trend Micro Software, Allstate and, once again, General Mills—all without disclosure.

Update: In April 2009, former CN8 reporter Janet Zappala contacted the Center for Media and Democracy to state that: "I am an award-winning journalist who has always taken the utmost pride in my work. ... [At CN8] at the time all of this transpired, we had a very limited staff with very limited resources and were trying to do the best with what little we had. ... We were not set up at the time with our own station website; therefore the only way we could help our viewers find more information on a given topic was to give the only website available. I never endorsed any products or companies."

Original General Mills VNR CN8 10PM newscast
Created by Medialink September 26, 2006
Voiced by publicist Re-voiced by station anchor