State rallies troops for TV sponsorship

A TV game show sponsored by the Army is one of the more colourful proposals being considered by the Central Office of Information as it launches the State into the area of sponsoring and funding TV programmes.

The COI’s decision to consider moves into TV sponsorship and compile a roster of specialist agencies (MW January 28) has wide-ranging implications for the way the Government promotes its services.

A COI spokesman says that the tender recently posted in the Official Journal of the European Community reflects a mandatory need to review its agency rosters “every few years”. However, COI head of promotions and sponsorship Samantha Mercer confirms that moves into TV sponsorship are afoot.

Mercer says a programme could be made, for example, about the life of a young Army recruit, though she refuses to expand on this. Other departments may also sponsor programmes, which could include the Department of Trade & Industry backing a study of government-sponsored university graduates or the Department of the Environment sponsoring nature-related programming.

Paul Green, joint managing director of Inside Broadcast, the company which came up with the Army game show proposal and which produced The Sun’s sponsorship of ITV’s Play Your Cards Right, says: “It is an open playing field. They could go any way in what is a very creative area.”

The show that Inside Broadcast has developed is called “Have You Got What It Takes?” in which members of the public join teams of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel for a series of challenges, probably on Armed Forces training areas such as assault courses. It has been pitched to the COI. Inside Broadcast joint managing director Andrew McCall says: “We are waiting on the green light from the COI. I have spoken to a number of terrestrial and non-terrestrial broadcasters which have all expressed their interest in commissioning the programme and acquiring it for their channels.”

The decision to look at TV sponsorship is not as strange as it first appears, given the Government’s position as a major advertiser. Departments can argue that sponsorship is a much more cost-effective way of spending taxpayers’ money, and it does appear to work out cheaper. However, it is less effective in promoting the specific messages, which much Government advertising relies on.

There is a danger it could be seen as mere propaganda for the departments taking part. Army sponsorship would promote the general image of the Armed Forces rather than encouraging recruitment.

Nevertheless, in the private sector, TV sponsorship has come a long way since Beamish’s ground-breaking 600,000 deal for Inspector Morse in 1991.

Sponsorships by consumer giants such as Pepsi, which funds the Pepsi Chart Show, and Cadbury, which backs Coronation Street for 10m a year, have shown how funded programming can be used to reach specific audiences more cheaply than a TV, poster, and press advertising campaign.

A concerted move into programme funding and the wider world of sponsorship by government ministries is seen as a natural step.

Tony Douglas, former COI chief executive and now European chief at FCB, says: “The COI has had a strong sponsorship and promotions team for 18 months and it obviously now feels that the interest shown by departments in sponsorship has reached a critical mass, to the point, where it needs to compile a roster of agencies.

“We can draw a parallel with making a direct marketing or a PR roster [processes which Douglas oversaw] and it is just looking for a more integrated approach.”

That too is the view of sponsorship experts who would jump at the chance of working with such an untapped yet wide-ranging – and prestigious – source of sponsorship opportunities.

One sponsorship company chief, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “Our business is based on the fact that people want to do more than just 30-second commercials. I’m not surprised the Government wants to do the same.

“It can be a more effective way of spending what is, after all, taxpayers’ money.”

According to another sponsorship agency boss, few put any limits on what projects they believe might be considered in promoting government departments’ work.

The COI has not placed restrictions on the sponsorship deals it will consider. The tender document asks for expertise in every area, calling for exponents of “broadcast sponsorship and/or advertiser-funded programming… sponsorship consultancy and evaluation… packaging and selling sponsorship to the private sector”.

Yet, the COI press office maintains there are no plans for any kind of sponsorship deals other than those where private sector companies help fund Government work.

If that is to be believed, the COI will face stiff pressure from the departments it serves. Government ministries under Tony Blair’s marketing-led leadership, will be keen to employ every tactic available to promote their work, and clearly sponsorship has become a viable option.

As one sponsorship source says: “I don’t see why the Government is any different to any other advertiser. It could go for programmes relevant to its brands such as the Ministry of Defence sponsoring programmes about the outdoor life, or challenging yourself or whatever. There are enormous opportunities.”

For Carol Fisher, the new chief executive officer at the COI, the move into television sponsorship could be an opportunity to build the reputation of the Government’s communications agency and its ability to get maximum value from departments’ publicity budgets.

As a body with 110m of advertising expenditure under its control, the COI would be foolish not to consider the opportunities of TV sponsorship. But it should also consider the problems – sponsorship is an ideal vehicle for “brand building”, as in the case of Cadbury and Pepsi. But it could also be viewed as profligate abuse of taxpayers’ money to support Government initiatives.

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