October 23rd, 2005

Plot Line: Drink Pepsi!

By John Furia Jr.
Los Angeles Times

Television, particularly reality TV, is erasing the line between content and advertising by clumsily grafting sponsors’ car brands, soft drinks and other products into story lines.

American television has always been a commercial medium. Advertisers pay the bills. Early shows, following radio’s lead, often jumped through hoops to promote sponsors beginning with the launch of Texaco Star Theater in the 1940s. But this commercialization never penetrated the artistic product. Classic shows, from “Bonanza” to “Seinfeld,” managed not to sell out to sponsors.

That’s changed. On “The Apprentice,” for instance, contestants now compete in what are essentially hourlong commercials to market brand names, including Burger King. In the episode sponsored by the burger chain, the contestants ran around like goofballs trying to come up with catchy taglines for its latest product. They then donned Burger King’s blue and yellow uniforms and struggled to perform jobs easily mastered by high school dropouts. Why? The fast-food chain paid upward of $2 million to have its newest hamburger flipped by Donald Trump’s would-be minions. Never mind selling real estate on “The Apprentice,” contestants win challenges by shilling for major advertisers.

This “product integration” pads the profits of the TV networks while turning viewers’ favorite shows into infomercials. When advertising agencies usurp control from writers, directors and editors, they are seeking to manipulate the emotional connection that viewers forge with stories and characters.

This corruption of the story is hardly limited to reality TV. CBS Chairman Les Moonves has predicted that up to 75% of all scripted prime-time network shows will soon feature products paid for by advertisers and integrated into plot lines. One advertising executive recently predicted that content and advertising will be fully integrated and, “in the end, corporate clients will be happy, and the writers and actors won’t be able to tell an Emmy from a Clio.”

Children’s programming has often been financed by sugary cereals, for example. But what happens to kids subjected to hidden ads?

The morphing of selling and storytelling is also infiltrating the movie business. Mark Schmuger, vice chairman of Universal Studios, told an audience at an entertainment marketing conference that “studios need to work with [corporate] brands so that we’re not force-feeding them our already baked product. Can we co-create?” He suggests that corporate advertisers allot a portion of their budgets to script development.

What role will film and television play in our culture when advertisers determine the story and characters by testing how suitable they are to sell product? Imagine if Pope Julius II, when giving Michelangelo the commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, had approved the artist’s design of the Lord stretching out a hand to Adam, but only if in that hand he painted a bar of Dove soap or a Big Mac.

CBS’ Moonves told Advertising Age’s editor, Scott Donaton, that the key to expanding product integration will be “breaking down the resistance of writers, directors and actors.”

The Hollywood talent guilds should wholeheartedly promote this resistance. They should insist that writers, not advertising executives, be trusted to do what is best for the story. They should defend actors’ right to portray compelling characters and explore intriguing ideas rather than shill for Home Depot or Pepsi. Together, the Hollywood talent guilds should step forward to protect the public from the blight of hidden advertising by insisting in contract negotiations that the media giants address these issues. If corporations won’t, the guilds should take these issues to the Federal Communications Commission.

The Communications Act already bans stealth advertising, requiring that all such transactions be disclosed to the viewing public. Obviously, these rules have not been strictly enforced. The agency should force broadcasters to clearly disclose who has paid for advertising. It should require networks and advertisers to run a notice at the bottom of the screen when an advertising pitch is being made during the content portion of a television program. It should ban outright hidden advertising in children’s programming.

Unfettered product integration is in no one’s best interest. The American viewing public deserves to have some rules established to regulate the crass commercialization of their favorite programs.

Advertising executives and production companies eager to cash in on product integration deals will not regulate themselves. People have a right to know whether they’re watching a program or product propaganda, and the guilds have a vested interest in helping the public to protect itself.

John Furia Jr. is a former president of the Writers Guild of America West, a professor and founding chairman of the division of writing in the School of Cinema-Television at USC, and a TV writer.

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