February 9, 2006

Screen actors, writers protest product placement

By Jesse Hiestand

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Unions representing Hollywood actors and screenwriters staged their first joint protest over product placement Wednesday after being denied a chance to attend an advertising summit about branded entertainment.

About 200 actors and writers carried picket signs and chanted in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel as agents, producers and brand directors spoke to advertisers at the daylong conference. Passing cars honked in support.

Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg and the Writers Guild of America, West president Patric Verrone vowed to keep up the pressure until the industry agrees to establish a "code of conduct" governing product integration.

"Where are the voices of the creative community in this debate? Out here on the street," Verrone said.

"We need consultation and eventually we need compensation," Rosenberg added. "Whatever happened to artistic integrity? When did we lose the right to say yes or no?"

The unions launched a campaign against what they call "stealth advertising" in November, saying that it was unfair to force writers to weave advertisements into story lines that actors are required to read.

SAG and WGA have threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission unless producers open the issue to negotiation. Industry representatives declined comment on the issue Wednesday and, so far, they have refused to respond to the unions' campaign.

Industry sources say that product integration has been around since the 1970s and that the networks and advertisers have a well-established system to govern the use of ads in scripted series since they must also balance the interests of producers and the public. It was also noted that the unions' campaign appears to focus on the blatant use of product placement in reality television, a genre in which they do not have labor jurisdiction but are seeking it.

"I question their sincerity and their concerns about creative integrity of scripted programming when they're asking for money and their only examples are reality TV," said the source.

Union leaders said Wednesday that the practice is becoming more prevalent in scripted TV as well as features, especially when the ad revenue is a key source of funding.

Verrone said the top-level producers who have resisted product integration in the past are increasingly finding it harder to buck the trend since it is becoming an integral part of the business model as the networks look to offset production costs and the influence of digital video recorders.

"For actors and writers who are being forced to shoehorn products into their work -- whether they fit or not -- there are critical issues of creative rights, consultation and fair compensation," Verrone said. "For the public, there is the serious matter of disclosure. Consumers, parents and all viewers have the right to be told when we are being sold."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter