TV sponsorship gets big break

It may look like another minute tweak of the TV control button, but the resulting picture emerging for sponsorship is incomparably bigger and better. So much so that, in five to ten years’ time, the Independent Television Commission’s latest relaxation of TV sponsorship guidelines may seem a turning point in the fortunes of these obliquely-crafted bumper breaks.

What the ITC edict amounts to is permission to air sponsors’ products and contact details for the first time. Nestlé, for example, would now be able to show its “friends” in the bumpers surrounding Friends, explicitly drinking from Nescafé mugs – should it wish to do so.

To be sure, there are still restrictions in place: a relevant link between the creative treatment of the bumpers and the content of the programme they surround remains an absolute requirement. But the coded message won’t be lost on advertisers. TV sponsorship now offers a much more attractive means of targeting audiences: arguably more precisely than conventional advertising; inarguably more cheaply.

So the question arises: could television sponsorship displace advertising as the marketing director’s favoured communications vehicle? Certainly TV sponsorship seems better adapted to survive the momentous changes affecting the media landscape. It’s axiomatic that the advent of multichannel, multi-set digital viewing has eroded conventional loyalty to channel ‘brands’ and made effective media buying a lot tougher. This situation won’t improve with time, so logically the cost of reaching target audiences through TV advertising can only go up.

But it’s not just a matter of the ads consumers don’t see, it’s also the ads viewers won’t have to see. Technology, such as that soon to be embodied in TiVo recorders, will empower them to screen out ads from their favourite programmes.

Sponsorship need suffer from neither of these handicaps, precisely because it is embedded in content, rather than sandwiched between it. Content, rather than channel loyalty, is – as we know – now king.

So will advertisers be seduced en masse by the self-evident charms of TV sponsorship? That seems unlikely, for a number of reasons. To begin with, the charms will take time to percolate. Habit is a difficult thing to break and, in any case, there needs to be a period of creative experimentation with the new rules – which are deliberately ambiguous – before advertisers realise the expanded potential of TV sponsorship.

Then again, TV sponsorship isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – nor is it likely to become so. There is a finite range of programmes which lend themselves to effective sponsorship, so limited supply of airtime is likely to be an issue for advertisers thinking of switching resources.

Even so, TV sponsorship seems set for a bright future which will see its price steadily harden against the advertising rating. Some experts believe its share of advertising revenue will rocket from two to ten per cent within a few years.

And that’s not all: the process of deregulation will continue and so, pari passu, will the ambition of advertisers to impregnate their commercial message more subtly in programme content. Explicit product placement is still a long way off, but the current relaxation of TV sponsorship rules is certainly a step in that direction.

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