HOLLYWOOD UNIONS CRY FOUL ON 'STEALTH ADVERTISING'

Prepare Complaint for FCC in Effort to Rein in Product Placement

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Two of Hollywood’s most powerful creative unions are trying to pull in the reins on product integration in TV and film, preparing a formal complaint to the federal government about the practice their leadership calls “stealth advertising.”

Executives at the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild plan to meet Nov. 15 with members of the Federal Communications Commission. The unions are working on their complaint, though it is not ready to give it to the FCC yet. But they said it will discuss the explosive growth in brand integration and its impact on entertainment and creative communities.

The unions’ position paper calls for creating a code with guidelines that include “full and clear” disclosure of product integration at the beginning of a show; strict limits of product integration in children’s programming; a voice for storytellers, actors and directors, arrived at through collective bargaining, about how a product or brand is to be integrated into content; and extension of all product-integration rules to cable TV, “where some of the most egregious abuse is found,” according to the report.

'Roaring silence'
The unions held their press conference today because their leadership has not been able to start talks with studios and networks despite attempts to do so. They are involving the FCC because they have not been able to break through at entertainment companies they’ve asked to help create a voluntary code of conduct to regulate brand integration. “There’s been a roaring silence so far,” said WGA West President Patric Verrone.

“Our first choice is to sit down with our business partners and the advertising industry and talk about this,” said David Young, executive director of WGA West. “Our first choice is not to issue a white paper and call a press conference.”

The guilds' concerns are twofold. They have complained that their members are not included in discussions about brand integration into TV and film and, in some cases, are so far out of the loop that they are forced to plug marketers into entertainment at the last minute. The product is suffering as a result, they said.

Also, the behind-the-scenes talent and the actors are not paid for the work they do on behalf of the marketers. Editors and writers aren’t compensated for weaving a brand into a show, which the WGA leadership said is akin to performing an ad copywriter’s job. Nor are the actors paid for what can sometimes seem like outright shilling for a brand, SAG executives said.

'Integrity was voted off the island'
Unions understand that TV is an ad-supported medium and that the business is rapidly changing because of ad-skipping devices, Mr. Verrone said. The studios and networks are embracing brand integration as a financial boon but aren’t considering the public interest, particularly with reality TV, he maintained. “Artistic integrity was voted off the island long ago,” Mr. Verrone said. He called the shows “quasi-infomercials,” and said the public’s tolerance for some of them “have been reached and breached.”

Most actors don’t have the clout to refuse to be involved in product integration in their TV projects, said Anne-Marie Johnson, SAG’s Hollywood division chair, though it could hurt their earning potential as commercial pitchmen. Some have chosen not to sponsor products or work in advertising at all. “At the very least, they need to be given the right to say no,” Ms. Johnson said.

Marketers are becoming part of the wallpaper in TV shows, with more than 23,500 brand occurrences last year in the top 10 prime-time programs, said Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, who also attended the press conference. In the first quarter of ‘05, there were some 13,000 band occurrences, he said.

There are clear FCC rules on disclosing product placement, and those aren’t being met under the current practices of showing the marketer involvement in tiny print at the end credits, Mr. Kaplan said. The guilds are asking for disclosure in front of films and TV shows, instead of at the end credits, with both visual and aural mentions of the brands that will be included.

Public's right to know
The unions’ ideas mirror those of Commercial Alert, a consumer-advocacy group that also favors pre-show disclosure of the brands that will be included in the program. Commercial Alert, however, has gone further, asking that product integrations are identified at the specific time in the program that they occur, with a notice superimposed on the screen.

“We believe the public has a right to know when they’re being advertised” to, Mr. Verrone said. But at the same time, the unions realize that the entertainment industry is hurting, with fewer people watching prime-time TV and box office continuing to slide.

“If we resist, it would slow the process down,” Mr. Verrone said. “We’re artists, but we're also in business. We need to find some common ground and work with our employers to make this viable.”

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