Product Placement: Is this a show? Or an ad?

US television is infected by the scourge of product placement. Could it happen here? Richard Gillis reports
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The Independent Online

Donald Trump, who leads the the original American version of the hit reality programme, and the series producer Mark Burnett are accused of stretching the rules on product placement to breaking point.

In a viral campaign Trump is satirised as "Subservient Donald", played by a lookalike whose only role is to act as the mouthpiece for advertising messages bought and paid for by corporate America. Visitors to productinvasion.com, a website launched by the Writers' Guild of America, west coast division (WGAW), are able to write their own script, which the virtual Donald will happily recite. Unusually this service comes free of charge.

Burger King reputedly paid $2m to host one episode of the show. The contestants were set a challenge based around promoting the merits of the company's new product line. Another episode was devoted to marketing a range of perfume endorsed by country singer Shania Twain. A spokesperson for Talkback Thames said there were no similar arrangements for placement in the UK version, in accordance with BBC regulations.

Productinvasion.com is the hub of a viral and media campaign being waged by the WGAW, which represents writers of entertainment and news programmes in America, and the Screen Actors' Guild, the trade union for on-screen talent.

On one level the talent community is rebelling against the crass way product references are being written into programme scripts. Some of the excesses are listed on the website. "They paid them to include the line, 'I just got a message on my T-Mobile'," says a writer on MTV's The Real World. "And if they didn't say it right, he would ask them to say it again."

"It is easy to parody this stuff because of the obviousness of the way they are doing it," says Patric Verronne, president of the WGAW, who is the spokesman for the campaign in the US.

However, the satire highlights a serious question: who has creative control in American television? Verronne says writers find it difficult to say no to big advertisers that demand their brand is squeezed into the wrong type of space. "The writers blanch at the prospect of having to shoehorn a mention into the script. It has to fit with the story or the characters. We don't want Columbo driving a Maserati."

Productinvasion.com does not attempt to stem the growth of product placement as a marketing tool, says Verronne. Rather, he wants writers and actors to have a greater say in the way in which it is executed, and for his members to be paid for their work. "Television is an advertising-based business. We are not trying to stop the process but we are trying to make it better," he says.

The WGAW recently staged a protest outside a conference on product placement organised by Advertising Age, the US trade publication; an event to which the writers and actors were not allowed to attend. "They have chosen to remain silent," says Verronne. "The money comes in and they will take it and they will let the water find its own level in terms of quality of programming."

Reality programmes are particularly suitable to placement by advertisers, accounting for over half of the total. Other examples include Survivor's deal with car maker Pontiac, and Coca-Cola andAmerican Idol, which ensures there is always a can of Coke on the judges' table.

The rules in the UK are under review. The chairman of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, Graham Lester George, suggests the issue may soon rise up the agenda. "My greatest concerns are whether this will this distort the way TV programmes are conceived and written," he says. "Will the product placers try to exert subtle or even unsubtle editorial control? For example; if a car dealership were to sponsor programmes, would it veto a gay kiss, or insist that creationism be seen as plausible as Darwinism?"

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