On March 3, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) released a Notice of Inquiry to implement the Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007 (“CSVA”), which directs the FCC to examine advanced parental control technologies that would be compatible with various communications devices and platforms.
Those name brands appearing in hit shows. Those logos on the motion picture screen. The characters at the breakfast table with a favorite cereal. The star driving around in a particular automobile. The airline shown flying the lead character off to an exotic destination. Reality? Coincidence? Hardly. They are the result of contracts between the entertainment company or producers and the advertisers, and they represent a growing and important trend in marketing to consumers, along with the Internet, as reaching market segments through traditional radio and television advertising becomes increasingly difficult in our on-demand, fast-forward world.
In some cases, such “branded” entertainment is subtle—inserting itself into a scene or a sequence quite seamlessly and, not necessarily inconsistent with, reality. In other cases—“Harold and Khumar Go to White Castle”—yes, this really was the name of a movie, as was “Akeelah and the Bee,” which Starbucks helped finance and promote. In case you didn’t know, the FCC (and the FTC) regulate advertising on television—the FCC’s regulations concerning disclosure arose primarily from the quiz show scandals in the 1950s. When does creative control over programming yield to paid sponsorship and financing dollars or Euros (or British Pound Sterling). At what point does a program or movie become an infomercial or advercast? Are there vulnerable groups (e.g., children) that might not distinguish so readily between advertising and programming and at what point is that deceptive? What does SAG say about their actors being de facto appearing to endorse a product or brand inserted into their scenes and programs? If an actress is under contract with a cosmetic brand exclusively and a movie scene requires her to use a different brand—actionable? When the trailer with that clip airs on broadcast television—problem? Witness the following quote from Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner: “Now, products have even seeped into plot lines. Soap operas have woven cosmetic lines into their tales of who-did-what-with-who, while “The Apprentice” sounds more and more like an hour-long infomercial for the latest corporate sponsors.”
Trademark issues, endorsement and competitive/ambush marketing issues, free speech, freedom of expression, adequacy of disclosures, misleading or deceptive advertising—the list of potential issues is growing as the balance between creative control and commercial reality infect the entertainment industry. At one extreme is the traditional product placement in which an advertiser pays a fee for the hopes that the scene with its product doesn’t get cut and wind up on the editing room floor. At the other extreme is a placement fee and promotional campaign that is so integrally tied with the plot and the program that the two are indistinguishable—think “The Apprentice” or “Home Makeover.”
The Mobile Marketing Association has promulgated guidelines, now adopted by many leading wireless carriers and programming networks, to deal with the growing use of email, SMS (text messaging) and similar mechanisms in advertising and marketing. As you will recall, legal and regulatory actions have arisen based on the fact that some companies’ marketing practices fail to adequately disclose the charges, whether subscription or imposed by the wireless carriers, that apply to some of their services and, in some cases, to the advertisements and marketing messages themselves.
Wireless carriers are beginning to adopt content guidelines for what they will or will not transmit from content partners—regulating such things as sexually explicit, graphic violence, profanity, hate speech and other topics, words and images—in some cases including lengthy lists of “forbidden words.” CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, issued fairly broad content guidelines last November, but left the specific implementation to the individual carriers. Some carriers have carried this implementation to a level of detail that covers everything from games, music, images and video, and in some cases even governs the file names of anything downloaded or transmitted.
Wait until you wake up to the issues raised by transmission and posting of “user generated content.” As you may know, in addition to the FTC regulating advertising and certain content in the U.S., and on top of state laws, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) having authority to regulate indecent content on television and radio and the mobile phone as a media and entertainment device is no longer fiction, but fact in many cases. Did you know that our Advertising, Technology & Media Law group has significant experience in all these areas (Judith Harris for FCC and communications; Doug Wood for advertising and marketing; and, of course, any of us or me, if you simply can’t figure out where your need fits).
Product placement is an advertising activity which has grown for decades in the motion picture industry, going virtually unnoticed by legislators. When television began aggressively using product placement for advertising, concerns (and regulation) began increasing. Unlike motion pictures, television is legally required to distinguish between advertising and programming.
First, “infomercials” that looked and felt like programming were targeted by regulators, because they believed the infomercials were deceiving. After a number of cases, the industry developed and implemented disclosures to allay fears of regulators at the FCC and the FTC. Enter reality TV. Suddenly programs were using affiliations with sponsors as part of the content or story line, prompting fresh concerns. As cable television, pay-per-view and video-on-demand services, time-shifting and digital recording devices, and fast-forward buttons have become commonplace, advertisers have struggled to capture viewers’ attention with product placement. In 2004, product placement advertising rose to about $4.25 billion.
Why the fuss? Because product placement is advertising, subject to the same laws and regulations that govern commercials. On television, both the FTC and the FCC can regulate advertising, mandate disclosures and determine if something is deceptive or misleading. Where the line between harmless product placement and deceptive practices is drawn is increasingly blurred.
Whether a product placement is deceptive or misleading—sufficient to make it actionable under Section 5 of the FTC Act—depends on whether there is some representation or omission likely to mislead the consumer. The depiction of the product must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the situation and the representation or omission must be “material.” In other words, if the consumer knew or was told the truth, the consumer’s behavior would likely be affected in connection with the product.
The FCC also regulates deceptive product placements: viewers may not realize they are advertisements, hence the FCC requires disclosure. Failure to properly disclose the commercial nature of a product placement could amount to “payola” and would be illegal. Again, where the line is drawn between harmless inclusion of products in programming versus commercialization which misleads consumers is hardly clear.
The FTC and FCC regulations puts advertisers between a rock and a hard place. The FCC requires disclosure for a paid placement—which makes the product placement commercial speech. If it is commercial speech, is the placement then also subject to FTC disclosure rules? What if the advertiser has no control over the creative content and no approval over scripts or editing or even the extent of the product placement itself? Under those circumstances, how could the advertiser be responsible for the depiction of its product; the director, producer, actors, even the editorial staff, have ultimate creative control of what shows up on the screen. The advertiser could pay a substantial sum of money to watch its product wind up on the cutting room floor in post-production. Ouch.
We were so busy last month telling you about Grokster, we didn’t even get a chance to mention the Supreme Court also ruled providers of cable modem services are not subject to the common carrier regulations that apply to telecommunications services—most significantly the requirement they allow competitors to connect or interconnect with their networks and provide competitive choice and equal access to consumers. Technically, the decision held that the FCC didn’t exceed its authority and has the discretion to interpret the scope of its regulation and rulemaking authority when it declined to force cable broadband providers to provide competitive access similar to that accorded the telecommunications’ common carriers. The FCC had characterized cable modem services as “information services” and thus not telecommunications services, which are subject to the common carrier (and consequently, competitive) regulations.
In what is being hailed as a major victory for VoIP, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that some state telecommunications regulations do not apply to providers of “voice over IP” services, and ruled that states are barred from imposing telecommunications regulations on Internet phone service providers. The FCC clearly indicated that existing regulations which rely on where a call originates and terminates (“geography-based”)—relevant when the original laws and regulations were written—are increasingly irrelevant today. The decision calls into question the validity of numerous state regulations which conflict with the Commission’s policies and regulations, but the hard work is yet to come—the FCC still must draft rules for services that rely on the “Internet Protocol,” the backbone of the Internet’s infrastructure. The Commission also did not address whether cable service providers were or were not covered by this ruling. Dozens of states are currently trying to regulate voice over IP, nervous that revenues from telecommunications taxes will diminish as businesses and consumers migrate their voice traffic to the unregulated Internet, although the FCC’s ruling does not diminish the power of state to enact and enforce consumer protection laws for the benefit of their citizens. Taxation and other regulation, however, may be a different matter.
Last month we reported the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Grokster and Streamcast Networks were not violating copyright laws by making software that allows people to swap digital content. Just a few days ago, over the objections from the motion picture, broadcast and professional sports industries, the FCC approved technology allowing digital recording services like TiVo to transmit television programming to subscribers over the Internet, allowing programming, for example, to be viewed anywhere an Internet connection was available. Digital recording services and streaming programs remotely threatens local advertising relevance and revenue, while still allowing viewers to edit out commercials. Advertisers are you paying attention??