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Putting products before plot?


Amy Scott


May 30, 2008

Kai Ryssdal: I had hoped to get through the show today without having to mention the big movie that's out this weekend -- the sex one -- but apparently, that's not to be. Sex and the City has its big screen debut tonight in New York City.

Nobody who knows the TV show from whence it came is going to be surprised to see the stars carrying brand-name handbags and gushing about brand-name shoes -- that's half of what the show was all about -- but working products into plot lines comes with challenge: How to do it without turning off the audience -- and the regulators.

Marketplace's Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: Last spring, Philip Rosenthal testified before a House subcommittee on behalf of Hollywood writers and actors -- Rosenthal created the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

At the hearing, he played a clip from the TV show "7th Heaven." Various characters extol the virtues of Oreo cookies. At one point, a young man proposes to his girlfriend:

[Clip from "7th Heaven"]: I love you Rose.

The engagement ring is buried in Oreo filling.

[Clip from "7th Heaven"]: Will you marry me on our wedding day?

I will.

Philip Rosenthal: Ah, that's a beautiful story, yes? Maybe if the writers and actors weren't so worried about covering that engagement ring in creamy filling, they could've taken a look at the line "Will you marry me on our wedding day?" Right? Surely a nominee for most terrible anything.

Rosenthal isn't just worried about bad writing. He says stealth advertising like this forces writers and actors to essentially endorse commercial products. And he says it exploits the emotional connection viewers have with TV shows, often without their knowledge.

The Writers Guild of America wants the FCC to consider requiring some form of disclosure. The Commission is looking at various options. One idea? Each time a product pops up in a script, text would appear on the screen telling viewers they're watching a paid placement.

Robert Thompson: That would make the irritation that some people already have over this stuff tenfold.

Robert Thompson teaches television and popular culture at Syracuse University. He says viewers are a pretty savvy bunch.

Robert Thompson: If you are watching commercial television, you have just made a pact with the people who are delivering it that you are entering heavily commercialized space, space that is dominated by the needs of commerce even over the needs of the art that's apparently getting you to go there in the first place. I think most viewers are fully aware that this is going on, and it's led to, occasionally, some really delightful outcomes.

Take this episode of the NBC comedy "30 Rock." Tina Fey fawns over a Verizon Wireless phone:

[Clip from "30 Rock"]: I mean, if I saw a phone like that on TV, I would be like, "Where is my nearest retailer so I can get one."

She faces the camera.

[Clip from "30 Rock"]: Can we have our money now?

Syracuse's Robert Thompson says "30 Rock" is echoing TV's beginnings. Jack Benny and Sid Caeser plugged their sponsors' products with a wink at the camera.

And if the wink isn't disclosure enough, Frank Zazza has a less-intrusive suggestion. Zazza helped broker one of the most famous product placements of all time: the starring role of Reese's Pieces in the movie "ET."

Frank Zazza: I would want end credits. Why not have my credits up there to show that I thought enough of this program to embed my product in it, organically and seamlessly? And if you have any questions, call us.

Zazza sees good product integration as a welcome alternative to the clutter of spot advertising. Wouldn't you put up with a few more subliminal messages if you never had to see another car commercial?

As networks struggle to hold onto advertisers in the TiVo age, you may not have a choice -- except to turn the TV off.

In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.




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