Plot Line: Drink Pepsi!
By John Furia Jr.
Los Angeles Times, 10/23/05
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
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
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