products before plot?
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
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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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