Not many things are free – especially in media – but product placement on TV comes close. Real product placement, as done in the movies, is defined as paid-for exposure, so what we see on TV should strictly go by another name.
What I am talking about is brands being eaten, drunk, driven and consumed during programmes. All programmes, BBC and commercial channels, need props and the ideal way to ensure screen time for your product is to send it to the production company.
People who don’t know how this process works assume that the exposure must have been paid for. But the reality is different. Production companies want to replicate real life, and real life means brands – what we wear and what we eat.
All the agent has to do is make sure that the brand he represents makes it onto the box in preference to someone else’s. Everyone gets something out of the deal: the production company gets free products, the client gets free exposure, and the agency gets a fee.
Most clients do it. About 65 per cent of the UK’s leading advertisers employ a placement agency. This saves the UK film industry 10m per year in production costs.
Why do companies look for this type of exposure? Darren Cairns of BT Consumer Products says: “Putting our products in the hands of recognised TV characters gives us excellent coverage and product endorsement. We can position specific products with ideal target characters, showing the range as well as individual product benefits. It also allows us to showcase new products, raising curiosity prior to launch.”
Independent Television Commission (ITC) rules are clear on product placement – brands can appear where it is “editorially justified”. But there are still situations where logos are ripped off cleaning products, cereal packets are cut to have two backs, and vending machines are covered in stickers to hide branding. All this could happen in the same episode as a lead character drinking a very recognisable beer. It’s this inconsistency in the interpretation of the rules that makes no sense. And ironically, when a logo is blacked out, it only succeeds in drawing more attention than if it had been left alone.
There is currently a healthy balance between brands supplied and exposure achieved. Brands will continue to play a major role in productions, as “personality” indicators, and another way to cut production costs.
However, this type of exposure, which is considered a nice add-on at the moment, will become increasingly important in the future. Will we ever be able to pay for TV placement, as is possible in many European markets? Martin Hart of the ITC says: “On the main channels? Not in my lifetime.” Well, there are going to be a lot more channels than there used to be, and they will be looking at every available source for funding. Product placement could well be one of them.