Arts & Media: Equity seeks to divide and conquer advertisers

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Equity is trying to break the deadlock in its dispute with advertisers by going straight to the agencies which are desperate for acting talent. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, hears why the actors' union thinks it still has the upper hand.

The actors' union has lifted its ban on actors working in commercials as long as advertising agencies pay its members a union-set rate.

The union has updated an old agreement with advertisers to take account of inflation and is now trying to bypass industry negotiators to offer the new rates to advertising agencies.

Equity believes that individual advertising agencies are unhappy with the refusal of negotiators from their employers' trade bodies to settle the dispute. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers want a new agreement which would cut actors' repeat fees by two-thirds.

Actors have been refusing to appear in commercials since September and advertisers have been forced to use old advertisements or non-union performers such as disc jockeys.

High-profile stars such as Harry Enfield and Helen Mirren, who can command much more than the Equity minimum, have been refusing work in order to support their less well-paid comrades. The actor and director Stephen Berkoff caused outrage in union ranks recently when he agreed to do a voice-over for McDonald's.

The union's general secretary Ian McSharry said he believed advertisers would leap at the chance to break ranks with the industry's negotiators.

"Even today we have had agencies ringing up to see if they can book our members. I think there will be a rush of people who want to take advantage of these terms," he said.

Mr McSharry said that only two union members had to its knowledge broken the strike even although it was hearing of cases of hardship from actors. Scottish actor Dennis Lawson, who attended the Equity announcement, said he knew of an unemployed actor with two small children who had turned down a contract worth pounds 25,000 rather than break the strike. "It simply isn't the case that lots of us are going back to work. Actors are tough. We are used to not working. We have had plenty of practice at it," he said.

He had also heard of five unknown performers from Glasgow who turned down a three-year contract for McEwan's worth pounds 50,000 each.

But the union emphasised that such large figures were an exception rather than the rule for advertising work. Its new rates would pay featured artists pounds 136.50 a day for studio work with a top up of repeat fees.

"I think everybody realises the quality of commercials has dropped," said actor Tim Pigott-Smith who attended Equity's announcement with Radio 4 regular Martin Jarvis and Jan Ravens, the voice of the Cadbury Caramel bunny. "I did a Lexus commercial two years ago that was never shown. Now suddenly they have had to get it off the shelf."

A spokeswoman for the IPA, which represents advertising agencies, said it was extremely unlikely that agencies would agree to Equity's proposed contract, although she said the trade body would not operate any sanctions of agencies which did break with its agreed stance.