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Public-Interest Group Tilts at Commercial Windmills

June 06, 1991|ROBERT EPSTEIN

Who among us could calculate how many bottles of beer were sold when the movie "Total Recall" featured Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft on nine different occasions? Or how many bottles of Coors sold because its advertising sign popped up five times in the same cinematic classic? And how about that one call for Killian Red? Did it stimulate the marketplace and the palate?

We could also wonder how many packages of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sold because they were either shown, sold or consumed in the runaway hit "Home Alone."

How many of our decisions to buy a product are decided by the insinuation of nine bottles of Miller?

The totals may be difficult to ascertain but the fact that merchandise and services seem to pop up with calculable frequency in Hollywood's movies (a science called product placement) does bother Michael Jacobson. He's the molecular biologist turned public-interest advocate who last week petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to get our movies labeled so that audiences would know if Miller or Kraft paid to get their beer and their macaroni into the theaters.

Getting Hollywood studios to do something about commercialism has the same possibilities as an umbrella salesman cursing the dampness.

But Jacobson and his year-old Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington did stir a few yards of journalistic dust last week with his press conference and petition. (Once that was done he didn't rest, returning to the mass-media arena Monday with an alert about cereal manufacturers and their sugared tie-ins with Saturday-morning children's television commercials. This time, it was done through the older public advocacy organization, Center for Science in the Public Interest. In Hollywood-speak, the commercialism group is a spin-off of the science group.)

So before we got too deeply into the dangers of Hollywood's filmmaking institutions selling some of its time and space, we asked who sponsors the Center for the Study of Commercialism.

"There are some small organizations that provide some of our funds. There are some grants. There is the C.S. Fund out your way in Freestone, Calif., and the L.J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation in Oakland. There are a number of private philanthropists, one here in Washington, D.C.

"And we are starting a membership drive."

And did anything come of last week's product-placement press conference?

"We did get a lot of publicity and a lot of generally supportive calls," he said.

And why now this agitation about Hollywood filmmakers who routinely show commercial products and who routinely work out other commercial product deals, sometimes inside, sometimes outside the film itself? After all, it wasn't exactly a group of innocent film students who recently announced that the Subway chain of fast-food restaurants would be hawking T-2 meals, named appropriately and calorically after the movie "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." A molecular biologist could go on the road with press conferences about the nutritional values of that kind of deal . . . and meal.

One reason is subliminal.

The other is political.

Jacobson's group is concerned about the dollar drift of American society, where commercial messages are purchased in motion pictures and concert halls; where tennis players and Indy 500 drivers are adorned with product labels; where cigarette and liquor companies sponsor ballets, jazz and relatively non-controversial touring arts exhibitions, where artists are commissioned by multinational companies and composers are paid to produce operas.

"It is innocence by association," Jacobson says. "The alcohol and tobacco companies need good will. So they associate with good causes like sports and civic groups. But would they ever sponsor an artist with a message about the health dangers of certain products?"

In another direction, the two Washington public interest centers have hit the wall. Not only has the movie industry shunned previous calls for the labeling of products but the federal government seems to be ignoring the center's petitions.

Three years ago, Jacobson's group asked the Federal Communications Commission to do something about product placement and the movies. Television does have rules about disclaiming certain commercial practices. If a product is "provided in kind" for a show (a payment is made to get it on the air) it has to reported in the end credits. So why not a similar disclaimer when a Hollywood-made movie moves over to television with its paid-for product placements?

That was three years ago.

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