And Now, a (Scripted) Word From Our Sponsors

By Bridget Byrne
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 16, 2006

It's always been there, but it used to know its place.

Now it's running riot, out loud.

Product placement -- or, as the marketing industry likes to call it, "brand integration" -- has made the leap from props to the mouths of actors in movies and on television. And it's at the point now, says Alan Rosenberg, president of the Screen Actors Guild, that some actors are being asked to speak lines that are essentially commercials -- ones you can't TiVo through.

"Whereas they used to place product in a fairly innocuous way, they are actually giving actors dialogue extolling the virtues of these products," Rosenberg says.

SAG, in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America -- whose members are finding their dialogue can be usurped by the jingles of the ad world -- have been seeking to discuss these issues with the advertising industry, the networks, studios and producers.

This past spring, SAG's magazine ran an article headlined "Forced Endorsement: Are you acting . . . or an accessory to advertising?," which proposed guidelines for future contract negotiations and invited members to report examples of inappropriate shilling.

In a world obsessed with logos and status, it's only natural that brand names turn up in movies and television. In response to complaints, the Federal Communications Commission is calling for more hard-and-fast rules about disclosure. That might eventually affect the seamless integration of show and product.

But for now, the bigger problem with dialogue endorsement may be that it usually isn't seamless enough.

For example, Sony Pictures made a deal with the NBC show "Medium" last season and the result was hardly subtle: Main characters Allison and Joe discuss going to see "Memoirs of a Geisha," walk by a poster for the movie and then run into acquaintances who enthuse, "Oh, we just saw that, you'll love it!" Cut to a commercial for: "Memoirs."

They used to do it better.

In Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1954 thriller "Rear Window," when Jimmy Stewart queries Grace Kelly about whether she's brought a suitcase for her overnight stay, she replies: "A Mark Cross overnight case, anyway. Compact but ample enough." Her beauty and the sight of her glorious nightgown and satin slippers spilling out when she snaps the little case open no doubt sent legions of young women hunting for a similar carryall.

So why do we worry about similar stuff today?

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