COMMENT: Thought Leader - Prime-time product placement is thehottest issue in Hollywood ... and DC too

For years companies have sought to place their products on prime-time TV programs and in feature films. A few seconds of exposure on a popular drama or comedy series can be worth as much as $500,000, based on the cost of a 30-second commercial.

For years companies have sought to place their products on prime-time TV programs and in feature films. A few seconds of exposure on a popular drama or comedy series can be worth as much as $500,000, based on the cost of a 30-second commercial.

When actors drink Fiji Water on Friends, Will & Grace, and other shows, it's through product placement. There are two competitive publishers of legal books whose products have appeared on Ally McBeal, JAG, Philly, The Practice, and other series. Ford and Coca-Cola are even producing their own programs to insure exposure for their products.

Ford Motor Company products were placed by Showcase International in 26 of the top 27 shows that use cars, according to Richard Briggs, Showcase senior MD. The firm also placed T-Birds and Mustangs in Spider-Man. "We believe that thoughtful and seamless placement is appropriate for our client, otherwise the entertainment content begins to look like a commercial which can lead to viewer dissatisfaction and a potential turnoff to the brand,

says Briggs.

The degree of exposure varies by network. Each has its own regulations.

The FCC's standards and practices don't allow cash transactions for product placement because it would be considered paid advertising. Companies provide free products in exchange for a few seconds of exposure.

Now issues-oriented organizations involved with the environment, abortion, healthcare, foreign or domestic policy, and other sensitive and controversial issues should look to Hollywood. Prime-time dramas and comedies have become a new editorial forum where the producers, directors, writers, and actors advocate their own issues.

As PRWeek's feature ("When Bush lobbies Bartlett") outlined last week, screenwriters are taking current events and issues and dramatizing them into the plots on The West Wing, Law & Order, The Agency, and First Monday.

Jay Leno even took a Katie Couric interview that appeared on Today and edited it so he became the interviewer. The result was an altogether new version of what the interviewee actually said.

Because of this, it is becoming more difficult for the viewer to separate fact from fiction and remember whether the information came from the evening news, a TV magazine show or prime-time entertainment.

In fact, more people may be watching prime-time series than the evening news. According to Hank Rieger, former president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, viewers of the evening news and magazine shows range from an average of 11 million to 16 million, depending on the network.

However, more than 17 million people on average watch The West Wing and Law & Order.

A West Wing storyline on global warming mirrored the Clinton-Gore environmental policy. Another episode touted the Clean Air Act and how it impacts asthma, breathing and lung diseases. But the EPA received negative publicity on The Practice for not protecting children from arsenic leeching from wooden playground equipment.

One of the first episodes of First Monday dealt with the pro-life, pro-choice Roe v. Wade controversy. Future shows will feature other sensitive subjects.

If questioned, would a viewer be more apt to recall the controversy regarding US military policy on female dress requirements in Saudi Arabia according to how it was reported on the news or magazine programs that featured Lt. Col. Martha McSally, or how the issue was dramatized on JAG?

Congressman Gary Condit's wife, Carolyn, demanded an apology from the producers of Law & Order following an episode about a politician and a missing aide. The producers said the show was fictional. She lost, as did her husband in his reelection bid.

The armed forces have long recognized the influence of TV and have staffed offices in the LA area to work with Hollywood to get the best possible exposure for their branch.

Knowing the power of television, White House advisor Mark McKinnon met with industry leaders after 9-11 and asked them to reflect President Bush's message of reassuring children and promoting tolerance in their scripts.

Feature films such as A Civil Action and Erin Brockovitch have a life long after running in theaters - in prime time, pay-for-view, and a multitude of cable television channels.

Overload, the only Arthur Hailey novel not made into a feature film or mini-series, also condemned a fictional public utility. It may even have had a similar impact, but a public utility acquired the rights to Overload - using a production company as a front - and promptly shelved the project.

Just as important as getting a product hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of exposure, organizations with critical issues must build Hollywood relationships for their special interests. What's next? Stories on religious misdeeds, airport security, oil drilling in Alaska, or price fixing at Sotheby's? Or stories similar to Enron and Andersen?

Rene A. Henry, Fellow PRSA, is an author, consultant, and member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He has judged the prime-time Emmy Awards a dozen times.

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