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Placing the Product in the Dialogue, Too

When the European Commission introduced a sweeping plan in December to shake up product-placement advertising standards, the rationale was an echo of a playground whine: They're doing it - why can't we?

In other words, argues Viviane Reding, the commissioner behind the proposed standards, the European Union's 25 countries and their media companies deserve a share of the growing advertising revenue that the United States is reaping by slipping Dr Pepper cans or Skintimate Shave Gel into television dramas and reality shows.

But before Europe decides whether to loosen a patchwork of national regulations essentially barring the practice, it may do well to heed some of the American critics whose voices are growing more strident with the increasing emergence of products in plot.

The Writers Guild of America, West, a union representing writers in the movie and broadcast industry, has been particularly vociferous in denouncing the practice.

The union issued a report in November on the topic and demanded a code of conduct for producers that requires the disclosure of advertising deals through clear disclaimers at the start of programs. Failing that, they say, they will seek increased federal regulation to prevent what they call subliminal, stealth ads.

In addition, the writers' group argues that when shampoo becomes part of the narrative of a show, it is no longer product placement but "product integration." In a survey of its members last March, 73 percent said the line between advertising and content needed to be drawn more firmly.

On "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation," for instance, a Coldplay ring tone summons a television detective to his cellphone. Later in the show, those familiar notes surface again as background music. The song, "Talk," from Coldplay's "X&Y" album, is then ultimately offered to viewers for purchase as a ring tone for mobile telephones on a Web site.

But the cross-promotional deal is not disclosed to viewers. The writers' union president, Patric Verrone, argues that such deals should be more transparent and that viewers need to understand the difference between product placement and integration.

"Product placement is simply putting a branded box of cereal on the kitchen table in a show," Mr. Verrone said in a telephone interview. "Product integration is having the characters talk about the crunchy deliciousness of the cereal or provoking them to go out and tell their neighbors to buy that cereal."

Even some advertisers are beginning to question whether product placement is becoming as irritating as the shrill cry of a carnival barker.

"We find that when people are doing it in such a blatant way, it becomes a little vulgar," said an executive for L'Oréal, the French beauty products company. The executive asked to remain anonymous because she was not speaking formally for the company.

L'Oréal recently announced a two-year marketing and product placement partnership with the American film producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The executive said that the company's relationship with the Weinsteins was still in its infancy but that the aim was to show products like cosmetics or men's skin care creams as a natural part of the story line.

"It's not meant to scream 'L'Oréal,' " the executive said, noting that the company was trying to learn from the mistakes of others. "If it becomes too blatant, it becomes sort of a turnoff."

Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods company, has taken a more aggressive approach and earned the wrath of the writers' union, which singled out the company in its report for what it described as turning product placement into product drama.

In the television show "What I Like About You," the characters Holly and Tina audition to appear in an advertisement promoting the Procter & Gamble shampoo Herbal Essence.

Their competition is the singer Jadyn Maria, who is a guest star on the show and ultimately wins. After the audition, the real Herbal Essence ad appears with - you guessed it - Ms. Maria belting out a version of "Rock You Senseless."

To raise awareness, the writers' union started a Web site in November, productinvasion.com, which drew more than 400,000 unique visitors in its first two weeks, according to a spokesman, Gabriel Scott.

The Web site has the graphic look and mock panic of a B horror film. ("Advertisers gone mad! Will they succeed in turning our reality shows into infomercials? Stay tuned.")

The site collects stories of writers' experiences on the product placement front lines.

A story producer for "The Simple Life" offered this lament: "Greyhound just gave notes on 'The Simple Life: Interns' and demanded that we pull a scene because we portrayed a skidding bus for merely comedic effect."

More challenging was a problem posted by a story producer for "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge," who sought to raise the enthusiasm of contestants on a game show featuring a prize of a mobile phone.

"T-Mobile paid to get them to say, 'I just got a message on my T-Mobile,' " the producer wrote, noting how they awkwardly tried to fit the ad naturally into the reality story line. "The cast was also less than moved by some of the prizes."

Naturally, the producers confronted this hurdle in true reality show style: They filmed the contestants until they were thrilled with their T-Mobile prizes.

 

Dorren Carvajal, The New York Times January 17, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.