Hollywood Writers Fight a New Godzilla: "Product Integration"

Writers in Hollywood have the impossible task of coming up with creative stories while living under the thumb of philistine studio executives obsessed with the bottom line. This problem has only gotten worse in recent years as the noose of commercialism has grown tighter and tighter. Now, I am thrilled to report, the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild have said enough is enough. In a White Paper published today, the two Hollywood guilds are challenging the next, more pernicious form of “product placement.”

Product placement is the practice of using brand-name products as props in programming. It’s a debased form of crypto-advertising. This stealth form of marketing has been around for years, but it has been pursued in fairly limited ways. Coke cans are placed on the judges’ table in American Idol, for example, or all the characters in a film might drive Ford cars. As viewers gain more options for avoiding ads — TiVOs, remote-controls, DVDs — traditional advertising has become less effective. Which brings us to the newest frontier of commercialism, “product integration,” in which advertisers embed brand-name products into the very plotlines and characters of TV shows.

Some examples:

For a hilarious spoof on the studios’ contempt for us, the viewers, check out the website Product Invasion. There is also a special form for viewers to register their complaints with networks and media buyers. A feature that I really liked is “Subservient Donald,” in which an animated cartoon version of Donald Trump invites questions and then responds boorishly with a cynical plug for some product or another.

The White Paper explains what’s going on: “Advertisers understand that the emotional connections viewers have with shows and their characters can be used to help sell merchandise. Writers Guild members are now the conduits — we are being told to write the lines that sell this merchandise, and to deftly disguise the sale as story. As CBS Chairman Les Moonves put it, ‘You’re going to see some shows doing [product integration] extremely well, where you’re hardly aware that you’ve been sold something.’” That’s real “Tiffany Network” stuff, Les. The WGA charges that “tens of millions of viewers are sometimes being sold without their knowledge, sold in opaque, subliminal ways, and sold in violation of governmental regulations.”

Hollywood writers and actors have always operated under commercial pressures; there’s a reason they call it “show business.” But now writers are being forced to surrender what little artistic autonomy they retain, and become de facto advertisers. Worse, they are being conscripted into violating government rules that require the disclosure of ad sponsors.

It’s unclear whether Hollywood writers really want to ban product integration, or whether they just want to bargain for a piece of the action for themselves. Clearly, writers don’t like to have marketing-crazed executives telling them that Drano has to be a major theme of a soap opera. The White Paper notes that nearly three of four WGA members think the line between advertising and content needs to be more firmly drawn. The WGA is also calling for an industry Code of Conduct that would require full and clear disclosure, and strict limits on product integration in children’s programming.

Still, I found it a bit disturbing that the WGA White Paper does not call for a categorical ban on product integration. Why not call for strict limits on product integration in ALL programming, not just for kidvid? The WGA wants collective bargaining with studios to determine “how products would be integrated into content.” But as a viewer, I don’t want ANY product integration. It is small comfort to me that the studios and writers may have negotiated an “acceptable” level or type of product integration.

Given the political realities of the FCC and the Bush Administration, I’m pleased that the WGA and SAG are weighing in on this issue. That itself is an important first step. It brings the economic clout of two unions to support the long-time principle that that broadcasters must identify their sponsors. Without such disclosures, the door is wide open to payola of the sort we’ve seen recently in radio. On-screen disclosures — in large type or by audio voiceover — are vital. It’s time to force the FCC to hold the networks to account for furtively presenting advertising as entertainment and misusing the public’s airwaves.

There’s more we can do: Let’s vote with our eyeballs and move on to other media. It’s time to punish networks that show such cynical contempt for viewers and citizens (remember, they’re using OUR airwaves). Perhaps the unions and viewers could work together to show some muscle, put a dent in network ratings or revenues, and win some modest regulatory control over a pathetic, out-of-control broadcast industry.