Sunday, September 20, 2009

Product placement on UK television

Last week’s announcement by culture secretary Ben Bradshaw that Britain is to have product placement on its television screens came not a moment too soon.

It’s always been a major source of revenue for broadcasters in America and Europe finally caught up last year. Only Britain has remained stubbornly opposed, employing dinosaur arguments like “damage to editorial integrity”. From the New Year our most popular programmes will resemble the real world rather than having fake brands or products turned with their labels facing away from the cameras.

In fact, we’ve had product placement in the UK for years without realising it. Think of the last time you saw a travel documentary or a gameshow. When you see the tailfin of a plane, a check-in desk, or a luxury resort offered as a prize, do you seriously think the producers have paid the full price? When a celebrity drives a high performance car in a series, do you imagine he actually owns it? Most female television presenters have their outfits provided by a fashion house – either free, or at a discount. In future companies will pay commercial broadcasters hard cash to have their products featured rather than those of a rival.

Even though it’s excluded from the new provision, product placement isn’t exactly unknown on the BBC. My old series Challenge Anneka had more commercial branding in it than will be permitted next year. We had a researcher whose primary job before transmission was to check that every company that helped us had a “name check”. In each episode up to fifty utterly superfluous shots of lorries and workers in company tee shirts were added just to keep the suppliers happy and everyone was listed in the credits. Of course, it was justified because it was for charity – but the BBC never actually confessed to the arrangement.

Likewise Children In Need: can you imagine all those companies being quite so generous if the BBC didn’t allow their smartly dressed chief executives to sit in the studio with six-foot long cheques? Product placement on the BBC is every commercial organisation’s ultimate goal. It’s advertising you can’t buy, which makes it priceless – and even more valuable now you’ll be able to legally buy space within ITV programmes.

This change in legislation is not just because ITV is in dire straits, but also because the nature of media advertising is changing. People don’t watch the adverts anymore; they switch between channels during the breaks. So advertisers need their commercials inside the programmes themselves, so they can surreptitiously sell to viewers without them realizing it. You’ll probably notice it first in Coronation Street. The most publicized beer in the country is Newton & Ridley – the fictitious brewery used by the programme because it can’t feature real brands. Can you imagine the bidding war already taking place for control of the bitter in The Rovers Return?

Sadly the new rules won’t extend to the BBC or to children’s programming, so the wonderful anachronism of the “washing-up bottle” will remain on Blue Peter. Everyone knows it’s Fairy Liquid, but the words are blanked out, so generations of children have grown up to recognise the brand by the colour of the lid and the shape of the bottle.

In the United States, product placement is taken to extremes. Simon Cowell and his American Idol chums sit in front of bright red Coca Cola cups, which the producer has to keep turning so the logo faces the camera. The performers are interviewed in a bright red room which looks like the inside of a Coca Cola vending machine, and all the contestants have to take part in a Ford commercial which is shown during the programme.

I can’t imagine what The X-Factor will look like next year.

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