A convincing role to play?

Product placement is common practice in US TV programmes. Done sympathetically, it can work well, but done clumsily it can damage both brand and the show. UK viewers remain wary of the idea

Why does Superman need contact lenses? No, not a bad joke from a prematurely pulled Christmas cracker, but a question that many US fans of the TV programme Smallville have been asking since an episode aired with an overt reference to a Johnson & Johnson contact lens brand. Nielsen Media Research cites 249,000 total TV placement occurrences in the US in the first half of 2007, while worldwide, expenditure on the practice is predicted to grow 33.9% and hit £1.6bn in 2007, according to PQ Media.

It’s also the kind of question, according to research from iD Factor/ iCD Research, that will probably be directed increasingly at EU broadcasters and brands after the Audiovisual Media Services Directive was passed at the end of last month by the European Parliament. Part of the directive lifts the ban on paid product placement in fictional programming, and individual member states now have until December 2009 to establish more permissive regulations.

Opinion is divided in the blogosphere about the Smallville episode, but those recognising that the show has to make money in the era of TiVo and Sky Plus are outweighed by those feeling betrayed. Interestingly, however, many fans distinguish between placement done poorly and done well in earlier episodes.

The Superman experience shows that paid product placement can be a potential minefield as well as a goldmine for broadcasters looking for revenue streams and brands new ways to engage with consumers.

A demographically representative online survey of 1,000 British TV viewers in October 2007 showed a high degree of scepticism must be overcome as well as a lack of awareness, with only 8% claiming knowledge of the changes. Once informed, 73% thought it “likely” or “very likely” that the laxer rules will be abused. Of those 73% of respondents, the principal types of abuse were anticipated to be that “too many shows will engage in the practice” (cited by 59%), with 58% believing scripts or formats might be changed to make a placed brand too obvious.

And 49% of viewers thought that a compulsory viewer notification, stipulated by the AVMD, might not be given enough prominence. Other worries were overuse of product placement in any one show(48%), and 35% of people believed placement could happen in shows excluded by the rules from accepting payment for it.

The greatest concern among viewers seems to be over-indulgence. When questioned in more detail on this subject, 53% of all respondents thought there will be a large increase in instances of product placement on TV once the rules have changed – 26% thought there will be a slight increase and 17% don’t know.

Soaps were the most widely expected kind of permitted programming to engage in product placement, followed by gameshows, other drama and cartoons. Respondents expected “food or drink”, “household goods”, “financial services” and “technology” to be the most placed goods or services, in that order.

The second greatest concern was annoying, poorly integrated placements. A significant number of respondents would think less highly of both a TV programme and a brand for simply engaging in it. However, TV programmes have more to lose: 39% of respondents would think less highly of a brand while 45% would think less highly of a programme.

The research indicates that a headlong rush to place products everywhere is probably a bad idea, even if broadcasters are champing at the bit to make up for lost revenue streams. Viewers would only have fears confirmed. Educating viewers about the nature of the changes should occur sooner rather than later. Moreover, the US experience should be studied for evidence of the most acceptable manifestations of the practice: distinctions are emerging between simple product placement and what the Writers Guild of America sees as more insidious forms such as “product integration”, “embedded advertising” or “branded entertainment”.

With no guarantee that a proposed placement relationship won’t be received negatively by an audience if it isn’t handled well, both broadcasters and brands have to factor in to their decision-making any damage that may be caused to their reputations. Most risk appears to be borne by the TV programme, which is probably a consequence of the simmering issue of trust facing broadcasters, and the fact that people have stronger and therefore more vulnerable emotional ties to their favourite shows than to the household goods which may be placed in them.

Nevertheless, as the suspension of the Cadbury sponsorship of Coronation Street during the salmonella scare in 2006 showed, difficulties affecting brands have the potential to impact on programmes they are associated with too.

The reaction of consumers, according to this research, seems unbelievably cynical. The role of producers of TV programmes is, first and foremost, to make shows viewers want to watch. The last thing any broadcaster would do is produce or commission programmes that turn viewers off.

All commercial TV channels rely on the number of viewers they have to make money, whether that’s from advertising or subscriptions, so they meddle with this relationship at their peril. If products are placed in a sympathetic way consumers will accept this, as they have done in film for more than 60 years. If brands are allowed to abuse this and hijack the content then there will be a problem.

Real products make TV programmes real, whether they’re contemporary dramas or reality TV shows. (pictured: David Peters, head of sponsorship, Carat)

Paul Dixon, managing director at iCD Research, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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