Bad Guys Don't Drive Fords

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Sue Jones looks at how advertisers are becoming increasingly desperate for our attention.

Advertising and the entertainment industry have been inseparable for years. We have been used to watching shows interspersed with commercials. The viewers were quite clear that the commercial break was a time when there was an attempt to sell them something.

However, these advert breaks may soon be extinct. New technologies, such as personal video recorders (PVRs) and DVDs, mean that viewers are increasingly able to screen out advertising. Studies have shown that viewers with PVRs such as Sky+ filter out up to 92 percent of all commercial breaks. So corporations are now seeking ways to better integrate their product into the actual plot. This kind of product placement is also nothing new, as early as 1951, we saw Humphrey Bogart drinking Gordon's gin in The African Queen, but today it seems to be moving on to a new level.

Take Desperate Housewives for example. In a recent episode, a leading character, Gabrielle, gets a job as a model on the Buick LaCrosse stand at a motor show. She then describes all the positive points of a Buick to the audience. And, surprise, surprise, Buick just happens to be one of the main sponsors of the show.

Ford Motors recently signed a multi-million dollar deal with Fox TV to sponsor the hit show 24. Star of the show, Jack Bauer, drives Fords, and Ford vehicles are "embedded" throughout the series. However, one of Ford's main stipulations is that no "bad guys" are shown driving their vehicles. In an unlikely move, Ford has just paid $14 million to showcase the new Ford Mondeo in the forthcoming James Bond film, Casino Royale. Since the Mondeo is clearly not the type of car normally associated with Bond's life of danger and glamour, this deal is proof that some producers are placing financial considerations above everything else.

The real money-spinner for the corporations, however, has been the advent of reality TV. The US version of The Apprentice was positively crawling with "embedded" products. Product integration deals can net reality TV companies up to $2 million per episode. In response, Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an organisation devoted to protecting communities from commercialism, said, "Programmes like The Apprentice deal in dishonest or stealth advertising that sneaks by our critical faculties... What is American Idol but an infomercial for Coca-Cola?"

But the entertainment industry is not having it all its own way.

Last February, following the failure of talks with industry moguls and advertising executives, Hollywood writers and actors took to the streets demanding a debate about the future of product placement. Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president Alan Rosenberg said, "The fact that we must hold a demonstration to be heard on this key issue affecting artists is sad evidence that the industry continues to refuse to engage with us."

The entertainment unions point out that whereas its members were once asked to weave a love interest into every story they are now asked to create a storyline around a particular product.

In November 2005 the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called for the establishment of a code of conduct governing product integration. The code calls for the disclosure of all product integration deals at the beginning of each programme, limits on the use of product integration in children's programming, and collective bargaining for artists about product integration.

Product placement is currently allowed on British television, but programme makers are not allowed to profit from it, and the brand has little control over how it is depicted. Ofcom, the media watchdog, has recently signalled that there may be a change in policy, and that if product placement is allowed in film, "Why not in television?"

Although the stand taken by the WGA and the SAG is welcome in calling for the placing of some basic controls on corporate intervention in the arts, there seems to be very little in the way of challenge, either in the US or elsewhere, to the idea that corporate money is now the only way of funding TV and films. The BBC, which faces a constant battle over its licence and funding, recently announced its intention to revive the Play for Today series.

These widely acclaimed TV plays allowed directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and playwright Dennis Potter to produce groundbreaking drama. It is difficult to believe that Scum or Days of Hope would ever have been made if they had to rely on corporate funding. And what products would you place in Boys From the Blackstuff? After all, Yosser didn't even have a car.