Ideally, the conversation would go like this:"Didja see Dawson's Creek last night? When Dawson's mom sat down with Joey and made her look at that book about the body parts? That was so funny!"
"I know, I was like, 'No way!' Can you imagine if some guy's mother did that to you? What would you do?"
Doesn't sound like a conversation spurred by public affairs efforts, does it? Well, as far as those having it are concerned, it isn't. They think they're talking about another episode of Dawson's Creek, the wildly popular show on the WB network about life and love among precocious teenagers in a Cape Cod town. And, in a sense, they're right. But they're also making some people at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy very happy, because they're discussing a scenario that the advocacy group would like to see more of in reality. That's why they worked so hard to "place
it on Dawson's Creek.
Do the conversationalists know that? Of course not. Does anyone at the National Campaign mind that they don't know that? Certainly not. That would defeat the whole purpose. If they knew someone in Washington was trying to get them to talk about teen pregnancy prevention, they'd tune it out faster than 60 Minutes.
And there you have the reasoning behind one of the more popular practices in contemporary issues management: placing your message in TV show or movie scripts. Think of it as hiding the aspirin in the ice cream.
A more invasive procedure
Issue placement, for lack of a better term, is the logical offspring to product placement, and it's a booming business. But there are differences between it and its progenitor, the chief one being that Austin Powers can drink Heineken or fly Virgin Airlines (as he does in 1999's The Spy Who Shagged Me) without affecting the plot line or character development.
The writers don't even necessarily need to know it's happening. But issue placement is a much more invasive procedure, requiring normally independent-minded writers to wrap their words around someone else's ideas.
Which is why "placing
may be the wrong word for it altogether. Rarely can a PR professional take direct credit for putting words in a character's mouth. The path from boardroom to script is a long and circuitous one, marked by meetings and seminars and countless educational get-togethers.
So even when Dawson's mom sits down to talk to her son's girlfriend Joey about ways to prevent pregnancy, Marisa Nightingale, director of media programs for the National Campaign, is scarcely able to trace a direct line back to her efforts, considerable as they may have been.
"We met with the writers of ER last December,
recalls Nightingale, "but I know that we are probably 50 in a line of organizations they've met with, and if they do decide to work on teen pregnancy prevention, it's probably because of a cumulative effort. It's because the writer's kid said something when he came home from school, and because he read something in The Wall Street Journal."
There are occasionally obvious fruits to her efforts however, and Dawson's isn't the only show she's (mostly) comfortable pointing to. "ABC has One Life to Live, and they did things in a more serious manner, but it was the same message: Parents must talk to their kids. And we recently started working with Ricki Lake. She has become a terrific advocate for this issue ... the WB has been phenomenal."
So how does she do it? Gingerly.
Seemingly everyone who does it agrees that education, offered passively, is the way to go about it. Writers, especially for television, are overworked professionals in constant search for the next story line. Invite them to an exclusive roundtable with a panel of experts from an intriguing field, and you may be surprised how willing they are to show up.
"You look at a show and say, 'Who can I bring to the table that it would make sense for them to meet?
explains Ron Hoffman, SVP with Baker Winokur Ryder. "You want a prominent individual who they would want to meet, just to educate them on that particular issue or cause."
It may seem an overly passive way to go about it. After all, once you educate a writer about an issue, it's his or her decision on how, or if, to portray it. But the alternative - walking in with a ready-made storyline or new character - would not be well received.
"It would be presumptuous to introduce the idea, 'Wouldn't it be great if you had a character on Malcolm in the Middle who had juvenile diabetes?
warns Hoffman, whose firm represents Malcolm in the Middle, Providence, and others. "These are people who fought long and hard to get where they are because of their creative vision. They have a certain story arc they are trying to develop. It's very unlikely they would even take a meeting like that."
Also bear in mind that writers, especially for issues-oriented shows like The West Wing, ER, and Law & Order, are overrun with such requests.
Their time is limited to begin with, so to increase your issue's chances of being featured, be patient and keep your sessions focused on useful facts, not rhetoric designed to prove your point of view.
"A lot of writers, especially for prime-time shows like ER, will get a number of requests every week for people to come and brief them,
says Allan Levitt, director of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign in the White House Drug Czar's office. "These are people who are highly sought after. If you're going out there and preaching rhetoric, you're wasting time."
Uncle Sam is in on the act
The federal government is one of the more active issue "placers
out there. Some may take offense at the idea of the government trying to influence TV shows like Law & Order or The West Wing, but the fact is, Uncle Sam is one of the practice's trailblazers. (You may want to take a moment here to ponder the sheer ontological weirdness of President Bush sending someone to lobby President Bartlett).
Levitt's office takes a full-court press approach to lobbying script writers. They maintain a website for them, Drugstory.org, offering true stories of substance abuse and contact information for experts. They target them through ads in the entertainment trades, giving dramatic examples of how drugs are smuggled into the country. They even do their own content analyses of how substances are portrayed in the entertainment media, so they can go to writers with hard data on how their shows deviate from reality. "It takes it out of the subjective, moralistic finger-pointing mode that's traditionally characterized some relationships between Hollywood and Washington,
Like much of the government's outreach efforts, Levitt's office is currently in the midst of expanding its reach to include the Hispanic community.
The next briefing on its schedule is for writers in Mexico City who work on scripts for the Telemundo and Univision networks.
But what if your client isn't Uncle Sam or your issue isn't something your average soccer mom is going to want embraced by her kid's favorite characters? What if you're trying to get the friends on Friends to discuss the downside of a ban on assault weapons? Is Ross really likely to tell Rachel he's steamed because he can't get Monica the AK-47 she wanted for her birthday?
"The more typical the issue and the more mainstream it is, the easier it will be or could be,
says Kevin Jackson, director of entertainment marketing at Bragman Nyman Cafarelli. His firm represents groups such as The American Red Cross, and if you ever saw the episode of Smallville where a young Clark Kent grapples with not being able to give blood, or the 100 Centre Street episode about hurricane preparedness, you've seen his work.
He advises, however, that the decision about what to include is ultimately a subjective one, dependent on the values of the writers and producers.
"It really depends on the show you're speaking with,
he says. "For the most part, writers are the creative forces behind what you see. If they feel an issue or particular story line is appropriate, then it would be something they could investigate."
"I certainly meet a lot of people in Hollywood whose points of view are completely on the other side of the left,
explains Hoffman, "so I wouldn't necessarily rule anything out."
So stay tuned; Monica's birthday is just around the corner.
WHEN THE SCRIPT WRITER INSTIGATES THE ISSUE
As the creator and head writer for the WB series 7th Heaven, Barbara Hampton is often approached by people looking to inject issues into her scripts. Unfortunately for them, she's not too keen on the idea. "If I did it for one issue, I'd feel like I have to address everyone's,
she says, adding with a laugh, "I'm very anti-meeting."
But September 11 had a profound effect on her. So once America's military response began, she put in a call to the Marine Corps PR office.
"I wanted to do something for the people who had to go over to Afghanistan,
she says Hampton looked at a list of Marines who had lost their lives in battle, and chose one name at random: Staff Sgt. Dwight Morgan. Marine PR officer, Captain Shawn Haney, made the initial contact with Morgan's widow, and asked if she would be interested in talking with Hampton .
The resulting episode, "Known Soldier,
which aired May 6, imagined an e-mail correspondence between 7th Heaven regulars and Staff Sgt. Morgan, eventually incorporating the actual details of his death. The show, which also featured lots of discussion about war and peace, ended with a memorial service attended by real-life Marines.
Before starting production, however, Hampton allowed Morgan's widow, Theresa, and Captain Haney to review the script, and prepared to pull it if they didn't approve. "They loved it ... but there were so many things wrong technically,
she says - things such as referring to Marines as "soldiers
(a term reserved for members of the Army). Captain Haney provided the technical expertise Hampton lacked, and as a thank you for her help, he worked some of the corrections into the episode.
"When Lucy says to Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman, pictured) about (Morgan) being a soldier, Ruthie corrects him and says, 'He's not a soldier. He's a Marine.'"