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EARTHWATCH

On-Screen Green : Hollywood film and TV producers transmit an environmentalist message via the props and products they use on the set.

November 05, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Have you ever wondered why those Greenpeace activists depicted on the TV news always look like they're wearing Patagonia gear?

Well, according to Megan Montgomery, spokesperson for the Ventura-based outdoor wear manufacturer, it's because they are. It is part of a mainstream American business practice known as "product placement."

"We give product to Greenpeace because we believe in their work and because they do not accept money from corporations," Montgomery said. "One of the many positive fallouts of that relationship is that any time Greenpeace gets press coverage, our clothes are seen on their employees."

"Product placement" as it's usually practiced involves a cash payment or in-kind contribution made by a corporation to a movie or TV producer in exchange for making the company's product visible in the show or movie.

There's even a Hollywood trade group, the Entertainment Resources and Marketing Assn., which brokers on-screen appearances of things like cars, soda pop, candy and soap. The apotheosis of this was in "Home Alone," where more than 30 different name brand products appeared on-screen--notably in the bathroom episodes. (It makes me wish that, when the producers of E. T. offered various candy companies screen time, the California Dried Fruit Assn. had been a little more on the ball.)

But in the category of environmentalism-on-the-screen, things are a bit different. It seems that eco-activists have infiltrated the ranks of Hollywood and routinely give away "placements" for no money.

Big movie companies and highly rated TV show producers actively volunteer to showcase environmentally friendly products and causes. Pro-environment players in Hollywood have organized their own trade groups that promote this idea--the Environmental Media Assn. and the Environmental Communications Office.

An example of media activism can be seen in "Single White Female," wherein the movie set of Bridget Fonda's apartment was "dressed" with environmentally correct things like Ecover laundry detergent.

Columbia Pictures' prop person David Touster expressed the sentiment of many Hollywood crafts workers who insert pro-environmental elements into their work. "It makes the movie richer," he said.

Lauren McMahon, executive director of the Environmental Media Assn., provided me with some ideas that producers are advised by environmental groups to promote, such as "ceiling fans instead of air conditioners and bicycles instead of gas-guzzling automobiles." Schwarzenegger to the rescue on a bike?

Such product and plot gimmicks have been worked into TV shows such as "Cheers," "Get a Life," "Quantum Leap" and "A Different World." Even Arsenio Hall worked a reference to sports shoes made from recycled materials into a monologue.

This kind of green-on-screen effort is unfortunately necessary these days. Otherwise we would probably never learn of the existence of certain eco-friendly products that have no advertising budget. Being seen on the screen seems to confer a kind of legitimacy to a product. We've all heard people say "I've never heard of that stuff." What's really meant is that nobody's seen it on TV or in the movies.

Skeptics who don't like this kind of stealth advertising--even if it's for good causes--have raised an alarm that we are being manipulated. And they have organized a group, the Center for the Study of Commercialism, to lobby the Federal Trade Commission in Washington to regulate the doings of this new breed of hidden persuaders--at least the ones who pay for "placements."

Fortunately for us hereabouts, we don't have to remain at the mercy of Hollywood to learn the latest about environmentally friendly products.

The city of Ventura has the only municipally operated project in the nation where you can get solid information on what's eco-friendly in the stores--advertised or not.

I mentioned last week they're having a month of "environmental shopping tours" at nine local markets. Diamara Bach of the city's Recycling Office says reservations to join the tours on Saturday and on Nov. 12, 14 and 17 are being snapped up.

Instead of waiting around for such screen personalities as Bridget Fonda or Arsenio Hall to tell you what's nontoxic or made from recycled materials, why not join one of these local sorties through the supermarket?

"Shop till you save the earth," Bach quipped. She'll be staging the most effective "product placement" of all by placing a real-life box of goodies in your real-life hands for you to study its environmental virtues.

FYI

While you're waiting in front of your movie or TV screen for celebrity tips on environmentally friendly products, call 650-0884 to join an "environmental shopping tour" run by the city of Ventura Recycling Office.

Also read "The Green Consumer Supermarket Guide" by Joel Makower (Penguin, 1991)--$6.95 at local bookstore and also on sale to participants in the aforementioned tours.

To subscribe to a newsletter, "The Conscious Consumer," a wide-ranging listing of products and services that help the earth, call (708) 526-0522.

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