Product placement sparks protest

Unions ad up at confab

Frustrated by their exclusion from an ad industry confab on product placement, about 100 Hollywood writers and actors staged a noisy protest outside the Beverly Hills Hotel on Wednesday.

Waving placards with slogans such as “Content Fights Back” and “SAG and WGA United,” the protesters provoked a steady stream of horn-honking support from morning commuters on Sunset Boulevard.

But the snub by conference sponsor Advertising Age magazine underlines the daunting task faced by SAG and the WGA in finding a foothold amid a flurry of new business models — with the industry showing zilch interest in giving actors and writers anything.

The SAG-WGA protest represented the latest salvo in a five-month campaign by the two guilds to get a cut of product placement dollars at a time when the TV biz has been using product placement as a way of replacing lost revenues amid ad-skipping technology.

“From the beginning, artists have made a simple and reasonable request regarding product integration: Consult and compensate us,” said SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg at a sidewalk news conference. “The fact that we must hold a demonstration to be heard on this key issue affecting artists is sad evidence that the industry continues to refuse to engage us.”

Rosenberg and WGA prexy Patric Verrone were rebuffed by Advertising Age last week when they asked to be included as speakers at the publication’s Madison and Vine branded entertainment confab at the hotel. Editor Scott Donaton told Daily Variety that the request came in too late to be accommodated and stressed that the guilds’ concerns were misplaced, characterizing them as peripheral to the conference’s focus on integrating such diverse brand areas as hotels, gaming, fashion, music and mobile phones.

“We set the agenda months in advance, and it’s a very broad look at brands and marketing,” he added. “The topic of performer compensation is not an issue for this conference.”

But Verrone offered a differing version of the confab, which drew about 400 attendees.

“The so-called debate occurring today is actually a one-sided how-to seminar featuring the conglomerates who control the media and the companies who place products,” he asserted. “Where are the voices of the creative community in this debate?”

The WGA has focused mostly on the issue of writers being forced to “shoehorn” products into their work, particularly on reality shows — the focus of a yearlong WGA organizing campaign that’s yet to generate gains in guild jurisdiction. It’s also been threatening to take the issue to the Federal Communications Commission should producers and networks fail to agree to a proposed Code of Conduct requiring disclosure of product placements to viewers and banning the practice on children’s TV.

SAG’s been pushing on the issue out of dual concerns that actors aren’t being paid for what amounts to an endorsement and that actors should have veto power over such decisions.

“Whatever happened to artistic integrity?” Rosenberg said. “When did we lose the right to say yes or no?”

SAG could include the product-placement issue in its upcoming negotiations with the ad industry; no dates have been set for starting talks. Guild hasn’t yet responded to an industry proposal for a yearlong extension of the current pact — which expires in October — in order to perform a jointly funded study on changing revenue models.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which acts as the negotiating arm for studios and networks, hasn’t addressed the SAG and WGA issues.

But insiders have been cool to the notion of nets, producers and studios surrendering any product-placement revenues for three key reasons:

  • The guilds appear to lack specific jurisdiction. Rosenberg said Wednesday that he could not say whether the issue ought to be negotiated in upcoming talks with the ad industry or if it’s part of SAG’s basic film-TV contract with the AMPTP, which expires in June 2008. The WGA’s pact expires in October 2007.

  • The revenues for product placement are viewed as critical to financing production, particularly with syndication income flattening or declining plus the possibility of declines in ad revs due to ad-skipping technology.

  • Agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission already regulate product placement and disclosure of advertising.

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