When Unofficial Branded Entertainment Turns Sour

Drinking and driving isn't such as good idea, but drinking while driving is even worse. That's a whole other story -- and for entertainment marketers, not a good one.

Budweiser has a major issue with Paramount Pictures' "Flight" starting Denzel Washington, whose character as a pilot does just that -- drink while driving. (He also drinks beer and alcohol heavily before and after certain flights, including a big brand’s vodka products.)

This isn't approved product placement. Budweiser has asked Paramount to blur out its logo on future prints of the movie -- including those shown on DVD, pay TV and other windows.

On TV, more than film, deeper business connections can cloud up the works. Many big-branded entertainment deals are attached to multimillion-dollar TV media plans. That kind of leverage is a big deal. (Typically, one-time-only product placements in a major prime-time network show with no media deal attachments can cost in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.



So imagine if there was a big TV prime-time series or original TV movie with a scene where there was a man or woman drinking a Budweiser while driving. What do you think would happen to Budweiser's TV media plans on that network? 

Hmm... A screaming phone call or two to that network’s ad department might be in order. To be sure, maybe a senior programming executive at the network might preview the episode and say: "Wait, a minute. Isn't Budweiser a current client?”

But how can you stop a big theatrical movie producer like Paramount? Well, there is always the legal process to consider. Beyond that, the beer maker could find a way to voice its displeasure to parent company Viacom, the owner of advertising-supported MTV, Comedy Central, Spike, VH1, BET, and others, where Budweiser might have bought some TV commercial time in the past.

Years ago, you might find Snapple or Junior Mint products -- in separate story lines – prominently featured on NBC's "Seinfeld." According to industry lore, those products weren't part of official branded entertainment deals.

That isn't necessarily unusual. For years, films and movies have used what they have on hand -- more recently real products -- to give projects authenticity, some with approval, some not. What are the legal ramifications? That's still a fuzzy area.

While trademark and copyright laws can prevent logos or other protected images from being used without permission in films, filmmakers and TV producers also are granted certain "fair use" privileges under federal law. That allows them to use materials without receiving permission from the rights holders.

But, as we all know, leverage can be applied when there are existing business connections,. Are these unofficial deals important to artistic story lines? Producers would say so. It is fiction, isn't it? A Junior Mint slipping in someone's open cavity during a surgery on "Seinfeld"?  Doesn't sound like something we might find in a reality show.

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