Judge: Film Product Placement Not Putting Lives at Risk

product placementProduct placement is a regular part of entertainment, so much so that viewers often dismiss brand-name items they see every day. 

Of course, the film industry has drawn quite a bit of criticism over its product placement practices, particularly when it comes to cigarettes, alcohol and other harmful substances. In fact, activist Timothy Forsyth, who resides in the San Francisco Bay area, recently took several film industry institutions to court over how they used smoking in movies. If successful, the suit would have been one the largest changes to entertainment law in recent years. 

Argument for more stringent rating standards

According to Entertainment Law Digest, Forsyth sued the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Theatre Owners and six big film studios earlier this year. Forsyth hoped to enact an injunction that would require the MPAA to assign films “R” ratings for films that depicted actors smoking cigarettes.

On Oct. 28, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg heard Forsyth’s argument that neglecting to protect young viewers from images of tobacco consumption increases the likelihood of them picking up the habit later in life, according to Courthouse News. Forsyth cited research from the World Health Organization and American Medical Association, both of which advised the film industry eliminate smoking in films produced for young audiences.

Forsyth’s attorney David Schachman argued against film industry attorneys Kelly Klaus and Roger Myers, who cited conclusions regarding free speech from the Supreme Court. 

“This is not a case where plaintiff (sic) is trying to hold defendants liable for something said; rather something unsaid,” said Klaus, as quoted in Courthouse News. “They are forcing defendants to express opinions they want us to express.” 

The crux of Klaus’s statements was that films aren’t actively promoting cigarettes. For example, it’s not as if the characters within the types of films Forsyth and Schachman criticized consistently say “you should buy cigarettes” or something of that ilk.

Judge dismisses the case

In the Oct. 28 hearing, Seeborg noted that PG-13 guidelines state “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” From his perspective, this statement did not intentionally mislead viewers into thinking smoking was safe. 

On Nov. 10, Seeborg dismissed the suit, maintaining that film ratings are regarded as expressions of free speech, as well as protected from lawsuits under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. 

“[The Classification and Rating Administration] holds First Amendment rights to express its opinions that are reflected in the ratings system,” said Seeborg, as quoted by Entertainment Law Digest. “Even focusing on the certification marks alone, that right precludes the basic relief Forsyth seeks in this action – forcing CARA to express different or additional opinions.” 

Seeborg noted that, due to the deficiencies in Forsyth’s case – the main one being that he claims the MPAA’s rating system intentionally misleads consumers – it’s unlikely the plaintiff would be able amend his claim to pursue further action.

Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Anthony Caruso, at 201-806-3364.

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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