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Movies : Branded Into the Scenery : Commentary: Advertising is so much a part of life that it's understandable to find familiar products in films. But sometimes it goes too far.

August 29, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

"In a brilliant stroke of cross-merchandising," he continued, Disney used the movie and its sequels to promote the hockey team, while the hockey team promoted the movies, and both sold products with duck insignia.

It's old news that corporate "synergy" has turned movies into marketing tools for soundtracks and vice versa. But with giant corporations eating up more and more media companies (Time Warner, for instance, not only owns the Warner Bros. film studios, but also HBO, CNN and Time magazine, not to mention the WB television network and Warner Bros. Music), the opportunities for synergy--and artistic compromise--are endless.

And new forms of "synergy" are constantly being created. In one of the more inventive examples, Miramax Films is a major financial backer of Talk, Tina Brown's new magazine, which exists in large part to find and publish stories that the movie company will then adapt into movies. Miramax snapped up a story from the very first issue, optioning the rights to a first-person account of a Ugandan hostage situation.

Nobody yet knows the extent to which the magazine will be used to promote films made by Miramax or its parent Walt Disney Co. But cross-merchandising was in evidence the night before Talk hit newsstands, when ABC's "Nightline"--ABC is owned by Disney--devoted its program to a story in the magazine, featuring on-air close-ups of the Talk logo. A few nights later, ABC's "20/20" did another segment derived from the magazine. And the A&E network, in which Disney owns a significant stake, will plug Talk with a special on the star-studded party Brown threw on Liberty Island to kick off the magazine.

The Internet has opened up other new avenues for cross-promotion. On many Web sites, it's difficult to tell whether laudatory "reviews" of books, movies and products are honest or paid for. And respected publications that would never blatantly blur lines between advertising and editorial in their printed pages regularly link news stories to the commercial sites of advertisers such as Amazon.com, where they may purchase books on the topic they just finished reading about.

(It should be said here that concern broke out in journalistic circles in 1997 when this newspaper announced a restructuring meant to promote greater cooperation between the advertising and editorial sides. Critics, who later largely quieted down, denounced it as a lowering of the wall that traditionally separated the two functions.)

The problem with the blurring of so many lines--between advertising and art, advertising and news, advertising and life--is that eventually no one will know whom or what to trust. What in the world can you believe in when everything is a pitch? And how do you guard against it when so much of it is unseen, hiding in plain sight?

Not all movie product placements are without artistic value. They can be used in movies and television shows to lend an air of verisimilitude, much as a novel might use brand names to ground the story in a real time and place.

Director Stanley Kubrick, straining to make the British sound stage where he shot "Eyes Wide Shut" look like New York streets, stocked a newsstand with real publications, including most visibly the New York Post. The headline, "Lucky to Be Alive," echoes a line spoken earlier, and comments directly on the scene, in which Tom Cruise fears for his safety.

Spike Lee is known for doing similar things. A succession of New York newspapers with headlines about the heat instantly set the tone for his 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing." And in "Jungle Fever," he plants a copy of the New York Post with the headline "Doin' the Right Thing" in a scene right after the John Turturro character has bucked peer pressure and asked a black woman out on a date.

But what bothers Miller and others is the use of placements for no purpose other than to sell a product to an unsuspecting viewer. As the Consumers Union noted in its report: "Advertising invites skepticism. When others urge us to do what they want, one is alerted to the possibility that their wishes may not be in our best interest." Product placements work by eluding our defenses.

While visible to the naked eye, Miller said they "work as subliminal inducements because their context is ostensibly a movie, not an ad."

Ayers, the placement association official, blamed over-commercialization for the box-office failure of both the 1988 "E.T." rip-off "Mac and Me" and Bill Cosby's 1987 comedy "Leonard Part 6."

The public's embrace of "Inspector Gadget"--which grossed $75.9 million in its first four weeks of release--suggests that today's audiences don't seem to mind.

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