Thursday, July 3, 2008

Consumer protection groups and the WGA: Strange bedfellows

I recently read an article about how the WGA (Writers Guild of America) is railing against product integration in movies and TV and lobbying the FCC to require prominent disclosures whenever product placement is used.

For starters, I find it infinitely amusing that the film industry is actually on the same side as consumer advocates for once, considering how much thought policing those "advocates" have a tendency to do.

Musing aside, I think the WGA is failing to consider several key points. First, it assumes people aren't aware of product integration. It assumes we're not all bright enough to see that the only branded product in a carefully unbranded movie is sponsored. Whenever a real brand does show up in media, it's so conspicuous no one can miss it. Don't worry though, the WGA is intent on using your supposed ignorance to make sure they don't have to write Reeces Pieces into their script.

They also fail to understand that the legislation they support would completely dismantle their goal. The real motivation for the WGA's whining is that they don't want to have to write anything in to their work outside of their tidy vision. More importantly, they don't want product placement "distracting" from their vision or taking any of the attention away from their story. If every show and movie were to scroll a disclosure statement across the bottom of the screen every time a product placement was used CNN newsticker-style, there would be disclosures all over the place. And I challenge anyone to tell me they would be less distracted by a bucket of Church's chicken on the table in a sitcom than by a garish, scrolling disclosure. The disclosure would actually take more attention away from their story and attract more attention to the product. Maybe advertising people should support this legislation afterall. Considering how much the movie rating system boosted box office sales (originally an effort to cut down on the "bad" stuff in movies), it might be worth looking into. And it just goes to prove that the WGA doesn't actually want the warnings, they just want to discourage product placement.

Another thing the WGA fails to realize is that advertising, in its many forms, pays for almost all entertainment these days. Whether it's keeping it cheap or keeping it free, the guy who wants a writer's character to drink a Pepsi instead of a glass of water is paying that writer's salary. Maybe that writer should suck it up be a little more artful with his or her tie in if they're so worried about the integrity of their work. Perhaps I'm too cynical on the issue since I'm in advertising, a profession which puts art to work in the service of commerce, but art alone doesn't pay the bills. It's easy to whine when you're fed by a dozen product placements in a movie, but idealism begins to lose its luster when you're sleeping hungry on the floor of an empty apartment. Artistic integrity doesn't buy groceries, especially at today's prices.

Cynicism aside, I can understand limiting product placement to kids. They are an impressionable group who's been proven to respond strongly to advertising and product placement, and often don't have the full reasoning capacity to fully digest and and analyze the messages they receive. Regulations in regards to kids are reasonable in my mind and wouldn't hurt things that much, to my knowledge.

One last point is this- product placement is nothing new. When radio and television first began, the only reason there were shows was that companies paid to create entire shows, and plastered their names all over them. The reason soap operas have their name is that when they started in the early days of radio, soap manufacturers were the biggest sponsor of the daytime female-skewing programs.

The WGA should count their blessings that they have work again and stop trying to bite the hand that feeds them. If they're not careful, they might just get what they ask for.

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