In the late 1990s, I did piece work for a public relations company, translating achievement reports into English for its non-Japanese clients. The reports outlined how and where the company had secured mentions of its clients’ products in various media, and included equivalent advertising value amounts for each mention.

Most were in print media, but real achievement was measured by how often the company could secure free PR on TV programs, since the presumed advertising value was multiple times what it would be in a magazine or newspaper. TV coverage was more difficult to obtain, requiring close contacts in the broadcast industry and a flair for salesmanship. Contacts and imagination are still important for PR people, but gaining TV coverage isn’t as difficult as it used to be. What’s become difficult is distinguishing the commercials from the content.

Japanese media have always been tolerant of such overlap. Most travel-and food-oriented shows are predicated on promoting small businesses such as hotels and restaurants; and major corporate sponsors could always count on occasional PR features on variety shows. The coverage was invariably positive, but the only place where the ethical line got fuzzy was on news programs, which tended to go light on the dangers of smoking or studies of automotive safety so as not to offend, respectively, Japan Tobacco, once a major advertiser, or Toyota, until recently one of the biggest ever.

According to Japan’s largest advertising agency, Dentsu, last year TV ad revenues increased for the first time in six years, though advertising for all media was down for the third year in a row. Emerging information-related companies such as mobile-game providers Gree and Mobage Town are replacing manufacturers like Toyota and Sony as the main buyers of air time. Traditional advertisers have been pulling back mainly for cost-cutting reasons, but they’re getting free PR from TV production companies, which are under pressure to reduce expenses from the networks that buy their shows.

For years these companies could save money on content by hiring popular TV personalities who do nothing but talk, but in order to save even more money they’ve virtually done away with content. What’s cheaper than buying funny or shocking amateur videos wholesale from agencies and then having a bunch of comedians sit around and react to them?

How about letting third-party businesses provide their own content at their own expense? That, in fact, is a dominant trend at the moment. Consumer oriented variety shows have become a substantial subgenre. One example is TBS’ “Gatchiri Academy,” where financial reporters give advice on products and services and mention specific brands without critically evaluating them. Occasionally, a company representative even appears to make a pitch for his wares. The only difference between that and conventional shopping channel infomercials is . . . well, actually there is no difference, except that maybe the infomercials are funnier.

Some TV personalities even market themselves as “experts” in certain consumer fields so as to make them more employable. Comedian Teruyuki Tsuchida has expanded his resume by convincing producers that he knows a lot about household appliances. Masaki Kyomoto, a veteran rock musician, has apparently outlasted his second career as a jidaigeki (historical drama) actor and is now regularly seen on variety shows as a “sweets gourmet,” which means he has to compete for work with former sumo grand champion Onokuni (now known as stable master Shibatayama), a celebrated aficionado of cakes and confection.

Kyomoto was the master of ceremonies on a recent installment of TV Asahi’s “Otameshi Ka!” (“Give it a Try!”; Mon., 7 p.m.), which, like most variety shows focusing on consumption, is about rankings. Normally, ranking shows provide a general category and then, using independent research, count down the most popular items within that category. “Otameshi” is even more specific: it counts down the biggest-selling products of one company every week. In the past, it has covered the most popular menu items of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the most popular instant noodle products made by Toyo Suisan under the Maruchan brand.

On the show in question, Kyomoto and six TV personalities tried to figure out the most popular sweets sold at Lawson convenience stores; and not just sweets but sweets in Lawson’s own Uchi Cafe line, which contains 34 items comprising six “genres.”

The object of the discussion was to guess the line’s Top 10. If the guests’ first 10 guesses in a row were correct, they would win ¥1 million. If not, they still had to hang around until they guessed the complete Top 10, which meant they might be there all night describing and eating the products.

It’s important to note than none of the commercials aired during the show advertised Lawson. After the contestants failed to guess the Top 10 right away they had to relinquish the stack of ¥10,000 bills sitting on the table in front of them, and Kyomoto ceremonially handed the money to a uniformed Lawson cashier, thus indicating that Lawson had put up the prize money for the program. Since it was unlikely that the panel would have guessed the Top 10 so quickly, it wasn’t much of a gamble on Lawson’s part, but even if they did, ¥1 million is chicken feed for a full hour’s worth of PR during prime time.

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing unethical about “Otameshi Ka!” because there is no quid pro quo involving advertising. But once independent producers start allowing third-party companies, potential advertisers or not, to provide content for the sake of maximizing profits, cutting costs becomes an end in itself. This week, “Otameshi” visits the restaurant chain Otoya, and the following night another TV Asahi variety show, “Pussuma,” covers the exact same business. Sounds like a two-for-one sale.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.