Brands should resist going product placement crazy

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Now that product placement has been officially approved in the UK, brands should weigh up the opportunities carefully and take on board consumer attitudes to the change.

This is the last Market Research bulletin of the year. We wish you all a marvellous Christmas break and we will be popping back into your in-box on 13 January 2011.

One of the delights of the 1998 film The Truman Show was its parody of product placement; showcasing a world that is benignly artificial, uninspiringly comfortable, but ultimately, commercial.

The film also represents what I presume are the worst of consumers’ fears; that the floodgates have opened for the joys of a new product to be “conveniently” woven into a script – much like Truman’s wife Meryl pleasantly suggesting she make him an “all natural Mococoa drink” while they are having an otherwise serious conversation.

Before the world of commercial television in the UK becomes a scarily giant version of The Truman Show, marketers need to take stock of how the newly approved product placement legislation can be another vehicle to embed their brands into the make up of popular culture and the threads of everyday life – without turning the programmes that viewers love and genuinely look forward to into glorified ad space.

Of course, Ofcom’s rules so far dictate that programmes cannot be created or distorted to become one-track vehicles for product placement (this, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call an infomercial).

But never say never, as NBC in America has been doing this since at least April. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported that NBC had embarked on a new strategy of “behaviour placement”, which involves scripts being manipulated to accommodate a particular behaviour or message that will attract advertisers.

NBC’s defence is that it only promotes “socially positive” behaviour, such as recycling or healthy eating. But I can imagine that it won’t be too long before this stance could be swayed by advertisers waving wads of cash and suggestions for their own brand-led “storyline”.

So what’s to stop this strategy from making its way to British shores to tarnish our television programming? It might be enough to puff your chests up and say, “But we are British! We have integrity and would simply never allow this to happen!”

But I bet there are marketers among us who are cunningly eyeing up just how far they could take product placement and evolve it into “behaviour placement” to widen the opportunities for their brands.

To those marketers, I urge you to step back and think outside your brand and of the wider industry and public. The future of product placement as a productive revenue stream for the UK film and TV sector relies on advertisers behaving responsibly and treating audiences and their favourite programmes with respect.

There is certainly a place for brands in TV programmes to help them emulate the real world in which they are set. It was entirely plausible that the character of Rachel in Friends should work at Ralph Lauren, or that Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw would sacrifice her rent money for Manolo Blahnik shoes. But the same Carrie in the second Sex and the City film staring open mouthed at a packet of Pringles with Arabic writing on it for a whole two minutes is a stark interruption purely for its lack of context and relevance.

So there is no reason that Jamie Oliver shouldn’t visibly use Sainsbury’s products in his cooking shows, but if he starts, mid-risotto, to mention how easy it was to use the self service check out, then a line has definitely been crossed – and people will know.

The same people who responded to a survey conducted by Lightspeed Research for Marketing Week last January, of whom 36% expressed concern that product placement could potentially affect their enjoyment of a programme. Thirty-one per cent said they had noticed product placement, while a profound 74% felt TV was already too commercial.

These are insights that marketers should heed when it comes to formulating their product placement strategies. More on this survey can be seen here.

Despite the cautious sentiments, it is also worth noting that 60% believe product placement should be allowed. And while 67% think there should be restrictions on product placement, the restrictions Ofcom has devised so far are broadly in line with their feelings, such as not allowing product placement on the BBC, in news programmes, or in children’s shows.

So although marketers need to understand the concerns of the public around product placement, there is no reason that stepping into this terrain cautiously should stifle the development of a relevant and engaging product placement strategy.

Ford, for example, shelled out to be the sole sponsor of the first episode of the second series of 24 in 2002. It was shown without ad breaks, with the pay off being central character Jack Bauer driving a Ford Expedition throughout the episode.

Now this is something that I think viewers would appreciate rather than reject, and is an example of how brands can still be innovative within the confines of product placement, and add value to a programme rather than transform it into a commercialised shadow of its former self.

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