Karl Quinn writes in today’s Green Guide about the perceived issues surrounding on screen product placement, an issue about which I have been reflecting lately (though please note, my thoughts are in no way representative of the position of the ABC or Matchbox Pictures, the producers of The Slap).
Other than clear cut commercial arrangements for product placement, the use of real world products on screen is an inherently difficult and ambiguous area to navigate.
Where live action screen production aims to depict modern life (or even a certain period), the use of products as physical props can impart crucial information about characters and plot, or even colour in bits of detail that provide different layers of interpretation by an audience. To avoid the use of references to any products or brands could significantly the impair the ability of production designers to do their jobs effectively - the fact is, people do use such products and brands do have a considerable impact in real life, that may be appropriate to depict on screen to tell certain stories.
Accordingly, producers may seek permission from a company to depict their products or brands on screen. Where there is no commercial arrangement in place for product placement (and indeed, even when there is), such companies would necessarily be keen to ensure that the reputation of their products or brands would not be adversely affected by their use for the purposes of the production. In some cases, rather than risk such exposure, a company may simply refuse permission.
One way of overcoming this is to mock up props or artwork in a manner that resembles products or brands that have a certain public image - naturally, doing this leads to a grey area where one must be careful not to appear to be trading on the reputation of or passing judgment on those products or brands, or otherwise infringing intellectual property rights. However, given the fact that the art budget of any production is necessarily limited, there is only so much that can reasonably be achieved in this way - for example, creating a video game for a few seconds of screen time would be disproportionate. In addition, the very fact that a well-known product or brand is replaced by something obviously contrived itself draws attention to the fact of its omission.
The ABC has publicly available editorial guidelines that require commercial references to be dealt with in a manner that sufficiently protects the independence and editorial integrity of the ABC. As such, commercial references must be contextually relevant, not unduly frequent or prominent, and not imply any endorsement by the ABC. While some proposed instances of product or brand usage fall well outside these guidelines and are rejected, there are many instances that are not so clear cut.
At the end of the day, these guidelines are applied by people and their subjective interpretation of the guidelines as they relate to circumstances that may be on the borderline. Inevitably, some members of the audience may still subjectively interpret such usages to imply some sort of endorsement or judgment. However, significant consideration is weighed by producers and the ABC in relation to each on screen usage, and care taken to ensure that the usage is appropriate in the context of the story, and not so unduly frequent or prominent as to suggest any sort of endorsement.