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And Now, a (Scripted) Word From Our Sponsors
Film, TV Dialogue Puts Product Endorsement In a Troubling Place: Characters' Mouths

By Bridget Byrne
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 16, 2006; N07

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?

"It's distracting," regular moviegoer Thom Shelden says of the practice in the current summer films he's seen, among them Adam Sandler's "Click," much of which is set in Bed Bath & Beyond. "They are doing it so much," he says. "It's everything, everywhere."

Sandler's Happy Madison Productions has long filled its comedies about the crassness and commercialism of modern life with overt product placement, and the fact that Sandler is both producer and star means he's clearly not being forced.

But other actors may feel strong-armed, and that's what concerns Rosenberg.

"Our members are really being given a triple whammy," he says, noting that ad dialogue can take work away from commercial actors, might be a conflict of interest for an actor who is a spokesperson for another product, and doesn't compensate the actor involved.

It's not just about money; it's also raising ethical questions.

Rosenberg predicts that product placement eventually may involve political or religious thought and worries that "when at the last minute you're given something that is anathema to you . . . you've got to have the right to say, 'Yeah, I'll do that,' or 'No.' "

Traylor Howard of the cable series "Monk," who plays the detective's assistant, notes, "We do it here. It's a pain." She cites the use of a bleach product that none of the actors wanted to be associated with, because it seemed inappropriate to character and story line. A seasoned commercial actress, she recalls she eventually said, "I'll do it. I'll figure a way to make it seem normal." Another example was a car placement that "didn't fit the script . . . but we ended up making it work. . . . But sometimes you just can't do it." She says, "Hopefully it pays the bills for the show, but I don't know. I try not to worry about it, but sometimes it's really annoying."

The companies seeking brand integration stress they are sensitive to what seems appropriate.

Volvo knew it couldn't get a car into a story that predates autos, so instead created a global multimedia treasure hunt for its sport-utility as a promotional tie-in to Disney's adventure film "Pirates of Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." But many other recent movies, including "The Da Vinci Code," have featured the company's car on-screen.

Dialogue isn't demanded, but clients are happy to hear it, if it's apt.

"If it fits into the story line," says Roger Ormisher, Volvo's vice president of public affairs. "There's always the quip, you know, 'Oh, it feels as safe as a Volvo,' or something. It's fine, because it's reality. That's not cheating. But we've never in any product placement asked for a specific name check. If the director, the producer or the writer feels they can roll a joke off the back of it, that's okay."

Linda Swick, president of the North Hollywood company International Promotions, which secures "brand integration" for companies such as Volvo, Corona and Heinz, points to dialogue in films that showed up even though no such demands were made. In last year's "Four Brothers," Tyrese Gibson referred to Volvo as "one of the safest cars," and in the original "The Fast and the Furious" Vin Diesel said, "You can have any brew you want -- as long as it's a Corona."

"The audience laughed," she says, "and there you go: That's a perfect integration because whenever there's humor behind the integration there's also much more recall value. So there is a way of doing it."

Swick sees problems only if there is audience backlash to a movie coming over like one big commercial. She believes the writers and actors should have confidence that the "director is not going to do anything in his film that is going to interfere with its integrity." She adds that branding integration "may be evolving and going through many changes, but it will continue because it's life. It's life!"

For now, Rosenberg is looking for compromise on the issue: "If you consult with writers and actors, we will find a way to help you do it seamlessly so it doesn't infringe upon the art," he says. "But to just foist it upon us is wrong, and now they don't even want to compensate us for selling ourselves out like they normally do when we sell ourselves out!"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company