Movie product placement rapped by lobby group


&TC; NEW YORK -- Anyone who thinks movies are free of the commercials that clutter television never saw "Superman," "E.T." or "Ghost."

Through use of props and signs worked into the action, these blockbusters openly plugged, among other products, Marlboro cigarettes, which Margot Kidder, as Lois Lane, chain-smoked; Reese's Pieces, which titillated E.T.'s sweet tooth; and Reeboks, favored by Patrick Swayze just before he was plunged into the afterlife.

Product placement, for which various brokers either pay cash fees or provide props and services to movie producers in return for an "exposure" on the screen, has been around almost from the inception of the industry. But since last month, a Washington lobbying group has been trying to hobble the practice.

The Center for the Study of Commercialism has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission, if not to ban the practice outright, at least to regulate it by forcing movie producers to run a disclaimer at the beginning of a film saying, "The motion picture you are about to see contains paid advertising," followed by a list of "sponsors" whose products will appear in the film.

In practice, according to brokers who handle such placements, movie producers usually "thank" participat ing corporations at the end of a film, even though they are not required by law to do so.

Because of regulation by the Federal Communications Commission and stringent rules in their own standards and practices divisions, such product placements on network television range from rare to non-existent, but a spokesman for the center said some areas of television may be next on its hit list.

The center would like to put the brakes on "infomercials," the 30-minute ads that masquerade, usually in the late-night hours, as talk or game shows to hawk everything from car wax to diet plans and video news releases. The latter are slickly produced commercials, packaged as feature news, that are passed via satellite to television station newsrooms all over the nation.

"The most recent one I've heard of is one in which Crayola/Crayon put a silver swirl in some of their Crayons," said center spokeswoman Jill Savitt. "They did a feature puff piece and sent it to all sorts of news organizations.

"If news editors just run it as it comes, we object. If they use footage from it, then balance out a story, potentially it's OK. We would have to see it case-by-case, but video news releases are a potential target on our horizon.

"There are some forms of advertising we'd like to stop, but we're not talking about television commercials," she added. The FCC does not prohibit product placement on the broadcast networks and television stations it regulates, but, as a result of the "Payola/Plugola" scandals of the 1960s, it does require them to inform viewers that paid placements are in a given program. The FCC also requires them to list sponsors involved -- a practice that delights participating companies, since the rule gives them double exposure.

In practice, placement or even the use of brand-name products as props, is rare on commercial television. Even though placement fees or "loans" of equipment that otherwise would have to be rented might help finance series or made-for-television movies in today's tight-budget environment, the networks have regular sponsors to consider.

"Let's say Coke wanted to do that and Pepsi was the sponsor of the show," said George Schweitzer, senior vice president of communications at CBS. "We would never permit that, as it would cut down on our ability to sell the show."

Mr. Schweitzer said the likelihood of a product placement would be stronger with the daytime soap operas than in prime time, but that the network's standards and practices division keeps a tight rein on the practice in all time slots.

"In daytime, it might happen if 'All My Children' or 'The Young and the Restless' went to the Bahamas on location," he said. "They might try to comp the trip by exchanging hotel lodging for a mention on the air, but it's very rare."

The practice is rarer still at ABC, which has a policy forbidding paid or even bartered product placement in any show and sharply restricts use of brand-name props. If Tony Danza wants a beer on "Who's the Boss?" he'll have to settle for the generic, unlabeled pastel can favored by Archie Bunker in 12 years of "All in the Family."

Alan Gerson, vice president of program standards and broadcast policy at NBC, said the network "looked long and hard" at product placement for years, but concluded that despite the income potential, "it doesn't make any sense for us."

"We make our money by delivering audiences to advertisers, and that's a pretty good business," he said.

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