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TV Writers Script Safe Sex 'Product Placement'

Sep 6, 2012
Originally published on September 6, 2012 7:09 pm

For an egregious example of a silly product placement, look no further than the CW show The Vampire Diaries, where a character actually says "I Bing'd it" of a search online. But believe it or not, product placement can actually be serious and socially conscious.

Take the Fox comedy Raising Hope. Earlier this year, the show's main character, who'd been a teen mom, caught a high school girl in bed with her boyfriend. "I'm gonna show you where this can lead to!" she screeched. "I'm your ghost of teen pregnancy future!"

The vignette that followed was a sort of teen pregnancy Scared Straight! And it was, in a sense, product placement from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"We met with one of the writers last summer," says Marisa Nightingale, the senior adviser of its entertainment media program. "And they came up with an episode that incorporates some of what we talked about but in the very irreverent, funny tone of the show."

The campaign does not pay for placement. The nonpartisan not-for-profit works to make strategic connections with influential Hollywood gatekeepers, such as Susanne Daniels. She started working with the organization back when she was in charge of programming for the WB network. Daniels admits she was skeptical at first about letting a nonprofit work with her show runners and writers.

"There's always a hesitation of, 'Is this going to somehow tarnish the organic nature of the development,' " she says. "But that didn't happen at all. In the case of the campaign, I think it only enhanced the programming."

Daniels now sits on the campaign's board. One of her former employees, TV executive Gina Girolamo, works with the group as well. She's now in charge of more than a dozen teen-oriented shows, including Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.

"They're on the ground in a way that none of us are," Girolamo says of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Girolamo became involved with the organization in the 1990s, when she was a young producer focus-grouping kids about TV shows.

"These teenagers specifically said, 'Well no one on TV uses condoms,' " she recalls. "And I remember thinking, 'Wow. We really need to do a better job of representing life.' "

Girolamo says this nonprofit gained traction in Hollywood not just because it's generous with its research and statistics, but also because it never, ever tries to dictate story lines or dialogue. As a result, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has worked with hundreds of shows over the past 16 years. It helped with Glee's first-season story line about a pregnant cheerleader.

"We sent a bunch of stuff about what it's like for a pregnant teenage girl to walk down a school hallway," says Marisa Nightingale.

Nightingale contributed to a story line on the show Parenthood about a teenage girl's decision to have sex. She helped make sure it showed realistic conversations between parents and kids, complete with false starts and missteps. In one episode, the daughter lies to her mother about having had sex, and the mother lies about how old she was her first time. The truth comes out, in uncomfortable spurts, and it's not easy for anyone.

"Over the course of subsequent episodes they repaired their relationship, and it was very real and messy," Nightingale says. The idea was to model the kind of discussions parents and kids might have, especially ones that perhaps don't work out as well in the beginning.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is uniquely well organized and also uniquely positioned. You can imagine it's a lot harder for nonprofits working on poverty, or Lyme disease to integrate their messages into television programming than one that focuses on teenagers and sex.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Turn on the TV and it's hard to miss the product placements in shows like "The Vampire Diaries" or "Days of Our Lives" or "Project Runway."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PROJECT RUNWAY")

TIM GUNN: Good morning, designers, and welcome to the Lexus challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAYS OF OUR LIVES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Hoo-hoo. Cheerios, revel at this hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VAMPIRE DIARIES")

NINA DOBREV: (as Elena Gilbert) I binged it.

SIEGEL: But there is another kind of product placement that's more subtle. So subtle, says NPR's Neda Ulaby, that you might not even realize it's product placement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Earlier this year, the Fox show "Raising Hope" aired an episode where a teenaged girl is caught in bed with her boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAISING HOPE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You two, out of bed. I'm going to show you where this can lead to. I'm your ghost of teen pregnancy future.

ULABY: The show's main character had a baby when she was a teen. She and her husband show the girl pictures from their high school days.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAISING HOPE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Oh, here's our prom photo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) How many people get to look that fancy when welcoming their son into the world?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Look at those fresh-faced kids.

ULABY: The jokes and the regret are part of a carefully calibrated product placement strategy, but the show is not selling sandwiches or cereal. This product is a cause placed by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Its entertainment media program is run by Marisa Nightingale.

MARISA NIGHTINGALE: We met with one of the writers last summer, and they came up with an episode that incorporates some of what we talked about but in the very irreverent, unique, funny tone. And I love what they've done because it's not anything that any nonprofit would've come up with.

ULABY: Nightingale says integrating her cause into TV shows gives her issue more depth and more heart than any public service announcement ever could.

NIGHTINGALE: What they do is get at the feelings and emotions and the connections between people. Here's an example from a million years ago.

ULABY: The campaign worked with The WB show "Dawson's Creek" from the pilot on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAWSON'S CREEK")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Jen Lindley) Dawson, we need to talk. Sex changes everything, and I just don't want to lose our friendship.

ULABY: Back during those "Dawson's Creek" glory days, Susanne Daniels ran The WB. At first, she was skeptical about letting a not-for-profit work with her show runners and writers.

SUSANNE DANIELS: There's always a hesitation of is this going to somehow tarnish the organic nature of the development, you know, but that didn't happen at all. I think in the case of the campaign it only enhanced the programming.

ULABY: Now, Daniels sits on the campaign's board. TV executive Gina Girolamo is also involved with the organization. She's is in charge of over a dozen shows aimed towards teenagers, including "Gossip Girl" and "Pretty Little Liars."

GINA GIROLAMO: They're on the ground in a way that none of us are.

ULABY: Girolamo's involvement with The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy dates to her days focus-grouping kids about TV shows back in the 1990s.

GIROLAMO: These teenagers specifically said, well, no one on TV uses condoms, and I remember thinking, wow, we really need to do a better job of representing life.

ULABY: This nonprofit gained traction in Hollywood, she says, partly because it never ever tries to dictate storylines or things characters might say. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has worked with hundreds and hundreds of shows over the past 15 years. Take "Glee."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")

ULABY: The campaign helped with a story arc about a pregnant cheerleader, says media director Marisa Nightingale.

NIGHTINGALE: At one point, we sent a bunch of stuff about what it's like for a pregnant teenaged girl to walk down a school hallway.

ULABY: When Nightingale worked with another show, "Parenthood," she helped develop a storyline about a teenaged girl's decision to have sex. She wanted to show realistic conversations between parents and kids, complete with false starts and missteps. In one episode, a mother and daughter both lie to each other. The daughter lies about having sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARENTHOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) So the answers is no, you're not.

(as character) Right. I mean, what...

(as character) And you're not...

(as character) ...were you my age or something when you first had sex?

ULABY: The mother says no. She was 22. Eventually, the daughter tells the truth. She's having sex with her boyfriend. Her dad freaks out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARENTHOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) ...fast and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Dad, I'm...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) ...I don't know what to say to her, OK? What am I supposed to do? Give her a five...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You said it...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) ...and congratulate her for having sex?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) That's not what I'm saying.

ULABY: Everything is super tense. The daughter tells her mom she wishes she'd never said anything. Then the mother admits she was lying too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARENTHOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I wasn't 22. I was 15. It was awful. It was with this boy named Roy. Anyway, I thought I was in love with him, and he went to school the next day and told everybody.

ULABY: The storyline continued over many subsequent episodes, says Marisa Nightingale.

NIGHTINGALE: They repaired their relationship, and it was very real and messy.

ULABY: Not many nonprofits are as organized as The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Most are lucky to get just a little exposure on reality shows from "The Real Housewives" to "Extreme Couponing."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXTREME COUPONING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Joanie and Jamie find another item on feeding America's list of needs: rice.

ULABY: Marisa Nightingale says one of the best things about integrating messages into TV shows is there's a TV show for everyone.

NIGHTINGALE: They also have this cool factor that - trust me - no nonprofit, hard as we try, will ever have.

ULABY: Few groups really work to get their causes into TV storylines. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention does Hollywood outreach. So does the Kaiser Family Foundation. Still, you can imagine it's a lot harder for nonprofits working on Lyme disease to get into TV plotlines than one that focuses on teenagers and sex. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.