Hollywood writers protest over product placement in films

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The east and west coast branches of the Writers Guild of America published position papers outlining their objections and called yesterday for a code of conduct that would draw a clear distinction between entertainment and advertising, and make sure audiences knew which of the two they were being given.

"We're not interested in injuring revenues on which we all depend," the heads of the two Writers Guild branches wrote to their members. "But when writers are asked to construct stories around and for the benefit of potato chips or soft drinks, when our members are asked not only to be storytellers but advertisement copywriters as well, then things are getting out of hand. Writers must have greater input and control of this process."

Product placement has become the new, irresistible revenue stream in Hollywood. Television producers love it because it guarantees them income at a time when competition for audience attention during traditional commercial breaks is soaring and recording devices, such as TiVo, make it possible for viewers to skip the adverts altogether. Independent film producers, in particular, often find product placement useful because it can make the difference between financing their projects and being forced to shut them down.

The practice is almost universally hated, however, by writers, who resent being pushed into the role of advertising copywriter, and by actors who might be asked to integrate a Diet Dr Pepper or Verizon mobile phone into their character parts in ways that stretch audience credulity and undermine their professional integrity.

It appeared that yesterday's public call for negotiations and a code of conduct came in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to talk to producers behind closed doors. "We would naturally prefer to talk, knowing that to be the wisest course of action among partners," the WGA said. "Still, the producers appear adamantly opposed to anything resembling a discussion; they have made clear they wish to order the world as they alone see fit and do not need to exhibit the decency to address the legitimate concerns of those people who help them earn their profits."

Both branches of the guild recently elected aggressive presidents. Labour agitation in Hollywood has not had a good track record of late, but the WGA said yesterday it had a trump card if the producers refused to listen: complaining to the federal government that the industry was breaking the law.