Answer Man: Products take reality out of reality shows

News-DemocratApril 22, 2013 

Q. Why are product names often blurred out in reality shows? I understand blurring faces for privacy, but products? There was a time when companies would pay to have their products placed prominently.

-- Bill Craft, of Edwardsville

A. You obviously agree with Irish writer Brendan Behan, who once famously said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity -- except your own obituary."

The trouble is he didn't consider the cutthroat world of product placement and the huge piles of money it can generate -- or lose -- for both manufacturers and media companies.

Think about it: Let's say you're CEO of a product known worldwide such as Nike or Coca-Cola. Then, without your knowledge, you find your swoosh or soda shows up in a pornographic movie or some sleazy reality show that's being ripped by the critics.

Suddenly, people begin boycotting your product, erroneously charging that you approved -- or, worse, paid for -- your product to be included. Sales start to fall.

See the problem? That's why, generally speaking, if a product winds up prominently displayed in a TV show or movie you're filming, you'd better ask permission from the company that holds the trademark or you could be sued. Without such permission, you'll want to blur it, digitally remove it or reshoot it.

Here's a perfect example: Remember the critically acclaimed movie "Slumdog Millionaire," which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, in 2009? Well, BMW and other major companies reportedly said their names and logos could not be used in the film because they did not want to be associated with the Mumbai slum colony featured prominently in the plot. As a result, Danny Boyle, the movie's director, said they spent "tens of thousands of (dollars)" digitally removing product names.

Of course, such decisions can wind up biting you in the wallet. When Steven Spielberg was planning "E.T." in 1982, his Amblin Productions approached Mars Inc. for permission to use M&M's as the candy that would lure the shy little alien from its hiding place.

But the company poobahs, perhaps unsure of the film's nature or audience response, turned thumbs down. As a result, according to snopes.com, Spielberg went to Hershey Foods, which readily agreed to having Reese's Pieces ply E.T.'s out-of-this-world sweet tooth instead.

The result? Within two weeks of the movie's premiere, Reese's sales shot up anywhere from 65 percent to 300 percent, depending on which report you want to believe. And here's the kicker: Hershey's didn't even pay for the spotlight; instead, it agreed to promote the movie with advertising for the right to use E.T. in those ads.

Of course, there's more to this story than the fear that your product may be cast in an unfavorable light. As you hinted at in your question, there's also that little thing called "money" -- both from the standpoint of the filmer and filmee.

This can work a couple of ways:

Let's say you're a fledgling production company that's trying to raise money for your latest project. You might go to, say, Chevrolet and promise them you'll use their vehicles exclusively in your film for a wad of cash.

That wad can be huge. Cuervo Gold reportedly paid $150,000 for prominent placement in "Tequila Sunrise," and Pampers handed over $50,000 to cover little bottoms in "Three Men and a Baby."

If they refuse, you will either avoid using their cars and trucks or blur any Chevy logo that might appear. This would both prevent lawsuits -- and avoid giving free publicity to a company that would not cough up the dough.

And let's take this one step further: If Chevy does pay you, they might require you to blur the names of any competitors that might appear. This can get very personal: British Airways, for example, reportedly has taken heat for altering its in-flight version of the James Bond movie "Casino Royale." What did they do? They edited out a cameo appearance by Richard Branson and blurred the tail-fin of one of Branson's rival Virgin Atlantic planes.

It's not just product placement. If you watch reruns or buy DVDs of TV series from years ago, you may find different themes or songs because the producers didn't want to pay the required royalties.

This is not a recent development, either. When Philip Morris stopped sponsoring "I Love Lucy" after the first four seasons, all references to the company were removed for syndication -- including a scene in which Lucy dresses as the company's iconic advertising bellhop, Johnny Roventini, who gained fame for yelling, "Call for Philip Morris!"

So, although you might think there's no such thing as bad publicity, you have to tread carefully whenever money's involved.

Today's trivia

A year before he published his first Playboy, Hugh Hefner took a job as circulation manager at what magazine?

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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