Jon and Kate Gosselin

They’re reality TV’s cuddliest family, but increasingly noisy critics allege that Berks County’s Gosselins — and their show, Jon & Kate Plus 8 — aren’t all they appear to be

As a result, the family now goes on more free trips, and is treated to swag and catered to at every outing. Phils skipper Charlie Manuel let Jon and some of the kids run the bases after a game last season (they had box seats, and got an autographed bat from Shane Victorino); a zoo tour included getting to privately feed the giraffes. “They get the publicity of the trip, we get the trip,” Kate explains in one of the “Viewer FAQ” episodes. The kids model the latest tyke couture from Gymboree. They frolic with Wii Music, Play Doh’s Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop and Little Tikes Jump ’n Slide Bouncer as Jon gushes about why these are such great playthings and the camera zooms in on the logos. Nielsen ranks the series eighth out of 149 cable shows for product placement.

In one episode, the family is being photographed for the cover of Good Housekeeping. On an oppressive 93-degree day, the photo’s being taken outside, and because it’s for the November issue, everyone’s in heavy sweaters. Then the photographer’s strobe breaks. When Kate reviews the shots afterward, she’s heartbroken about how forlorn the twins look. Things aren’t any better the next day at the studio shoot. Twin Mady is grumpy, and Leah won’t raise her head up. The GH crew tries to coax smiles. “I’m always looking for ways to, like, make it fun for them,” Kate breezily tells the camera later. It’s episodes like these that have slowly roused some critics and viewers out of the Jon and Kate coma of undying adoration to ask an uncomfortable question: When do your kids stop being your kids and start becoming your meal ticket?

Jon and Kate have booked more and more speaking engagements at churches, where, according to several attendees and organizers, the collection basket sometimes gets passed so audience members can make a “love offering” to the family. Sometimes, the duo sells autographed photos for $20 a pop (cash only). Last spring, Jon and Kate hired L.A. manager Julie Carson May, who quickly broke the news to several groups that had booked the couple that they wouldn’t be able to make it, citing the production schedule and the demands of the kids. Jody Clark, of the Ohio Child Conservation League, had agreed to a $3,000 speaking fee, first-class airfare, a rental car and accommodations in exchange for the couple’s appearance at a convention this coming October. “I was pissed,” says Clark. May, she says, “apologized, said the Gosselins had spoken to God and made this decision.” She was offered a conciliatory autographed picture. At Noel Methodist Church in Louisiana, organizers say they pulled the plug after learning they’d be on the hook for first-class airfare and a $1,600-a-day bodyguard. A gig in Colorado was called off with just three weeks’ notice. “They are totally exploiting those kids now,” Clark says. “At the time we were booking them, the show wasn’t what it is now. It’s taken on a life of its own; it’s so commercial. I think the jig is up with them.”