Answer Man

Why company logos are blurred on reality TV

Q. I watch way more TV than I probably should, and I’ve long been annoyed by something that seems more and more common, especially on reality shows. Whenever there is a product that is part of a scene — sodas, cereals, T-shirts, etc. — the logos/names are blurred to make them unreadable. With all the product placement in movies, why is this done on TV? A few years back, my high school class was filmed for a local reality TV show. The producers came in before the filming and removed a Coca-Cola bottle and promotional item from my desk. I should have asked why at the time but didn’t.

— W.N.C., of Fort Russell

A. Almost as soon as the TV series “Heroes” hit the airwaves in 2006, NBC found it had a hit on its hands.

Viewers loved it, and critics praised it. But as far as Emerson Electric was concerned, it had gone right down the garbage disposal with its very first episode.

Which it had — literally. If you remember, the show chronicled the adventures of several ordinary people who happened to have superhuman powers. One of these oddballs was Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), a high-school cheerleader whose body could rapidly heal itself.

To prove it to viewers, the scriptwriters had Claire accidentally drop her ring in a sink on the premiere. So, like any other unthinking teen, she immediately stuck her hand into the garbage disposal to retrieve it. When she pulled her hand out, she found it badly mangled, but so what? It healed almost instantly.

Big deal, right? Another forgettable moment of TV fantasy. But Emerson Electric wasn’t as forgiving as Claire’s body. You see, she had not caught her hand in just any disposal. No, NBC had made the major faux pas of showing her stick her paw into an InSinkErator, an actual brand produced by Emerson.

Emerson was not amused, and it took just one week for their legal eagles to file a lawsuit against NBC in a U.S. district court in St. Louis. They alleged that NBC used Emerson’s trademark without the company’s consent and that the show implied “an incorrect and dangerous design for a food waste disposer.” Furthermore, the company claimed that NBC cast “the disposer in an unsavory light, irreparably tarnishing the product.” They also asked that NBC never repeat showing this pilot and never use Emerson trademarks again.

Within five months, NBC and Emerson had settled the matter chop-chop (so to speak) out of court. Terms weren’t disclosed, but I think you may now see at least one major reason for the occasional blur in your HD picture: Companies are extremely protective of their logos and trademarks and usually will not allow anyone to infringe upon them. I can tell you from personal experience that even we at the BND have occasionally received letters from companies if, say, we don’t capitalize a trademark that has become a common name in popular culture (e.g., Styrofoam, Kleenex, etc.).

To avoid lawsuits, fictional shows will either seek permission or use fictional brands. So while Radar proudly drank Nehi on “M*A*S*H,” the folks on “Veronica Mars” decided to play it safe by substituting the fictional “Skist” for the popular orange soda Sunkist.

Sometimes it’s done more stealthily because on fictional shows blurring a logo would be too jarring. Again on “Veronica Mars,” flowers, pencils, etc., often were strategically placed to hide Apple logos. Sometimes, companies just say no despite the free publicity they might get. General Motors, for example, reportedly told the original “Knight Rider” that Pontiac, Firebird and TransAm were off limits. Even back in the 1950s, the American Gas Co. asked that a “Playhouse 90” episode on the Nuremberg trials not use the term “gas chambers.”

But reality shows are different. They’re trying to produce spur-of-the-moment scenes, so you don’t want to stop the shooting to dream up a fake brand, remove a box of cereal or change shirts. As a result, they’re digitally blurred for several reasons.

A company producing a wholesome family product may not want to find it in the middle of “Big Brother” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” That’s why Budweiser said no to being in “Hangover II.” So, if they’re thinking, a show’s lawyers always will ask permission first.

At the same time, one company (say, Coca-Cola) may be a major sponsor of a show, so you certainly don’t want to offend them by showing someone swigging a Pepsi. And, finally, shows may purposely place the products, hoping later to convince companies to pay for the publicity. If the companies say no, the products are blurred.

If you have copies of early “Peanuts” specials, you may notice cuts in opening and closing title sequences where references to Coke and Dolly Madison have been snipped. It even happens in real life. When General Electric dropped its sponsorship of the Carousel of Progress ride at Disney Theme Parks, Disney either covered or removed the large GE logos. It’s just how business is done.

Today’s trivia

Thanks to ESPN: There are currently four active Major League Baseball players who have been with the same club for 12 years — and have never played for another MLB team. How many can you name?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Even as President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the country through such deadly serious crises as the Great Depression and World War II, he apparently kept his sense of humor. On some matchbooks made for the White House, he had “FDR” printed on the front — and “Stolen from The Desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt” on the back. You can have one of your own for $75 at http://outoftimecollectibles.com/MatchbookFDR2.jpg

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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