Spare us from yet another ‘P’-break on TV

Mark Ritson wears Ralph Lauren, Thomas Pink and underpants from Calvin Klein

Since Monday, TV stations in the UK can accept payment for the placement of products within content. No more fuzzy red pixelation when American Idol is shown to British households, we will finally be able to see the Coca-Cola cups that sponsor the show.

So, no more bizarre invented brand experiences like the cast of EastEnders having to drink “Thames Bitter” and “Stolenberg 1940” because using real beers would run the risk of commercial endorsement. And, after 40 years of their assiduous application, no more black tape to mask the logos on cardboard boxes being used to build home-made toys on Blue Peter…

Actually, I am getting a bit carried away with myself. Monday’s announcement ushered in a very British approach to product placement. One could be forgiven for assuming our new product placement laws had been written in 1961 rather than 2011. The BBC will continue to avoid all product placement because of its public status – so fake beers all round at the Queen Vic.

Children’s programmes are also exempt from the new law, so the charade of taping over Kellogg’s cornflakes boxes is also set to continue on whatever channel. And, as you may already have seen, all product placement that does take place on TV will be preceded and followed by a bizarre three-second ritual in which an oddly ominous black-and-white P appears on-screen to herald the approach of a product placement.

So, although British brands might attempt to subtly interweave their presence into upcoming storylines, the ridiculous regulations of Ofcom will ensure that everyone including the family dog will be unable to forget that product placement is happening all around them.

Product placement is actually a damn fine branding tool: a rare win for marketers and consumers

And that’s a bit of a shame. Because although it can be used and abused to thoroughly ruin good entertainment, product placement is actually a damned fine branding tool. Compared to the annoying “welcome screens” that haunt the internet or the paralysing effect of listening to the same bloody radio ad for the 50th time, product placement should be a rare win-win for marketers and their target consumers. Viewers hardly notice it, while marketers have a new, clutter-proof, tool for building brand equity.

The history of product placement is riveting and is littered with magical moments in which the right placement has literally built a brand overnight. That’s something we have never been able to say about tools such as direct marketing, social media or sales promotion. Only TV advertising and now product placement can create a brand’s fortunes in a matter of hours. Take the case of Ray-Bans. They may be a well-known brand today, but in 1982 the brand had almost completely disappeared with global sales of less than 20,000 pairs of sunglasses a year.

Short on marketing money but desperate to stay alive, the company signed up with Unique Product Placement – a California-based placement agency. The agency had connections with many big movie studios and they were able to get the company’s product into a new teen comedy. The film was Risky Business. The young man who played the lead was Tom Cruise. And the sunglasses he wore throughout that iconic (and now very politically incorrect) movie were called Ray-Ban Wayfarers. The rest was product placement history.

By the end of 1983, 360,000 pairs of Wayfarers had been sold in the US alone. And – this is a point too many marketers forget – that placement is still working for Ray-Ban today. Somewhere on the planet right now a 13-year-old is watching Tom Cruise learning to be a hit with the ladies and whispering under his breath: “Man, I got to get me some of those Ray-Ban shades.”

Of course, it’s not all one-way traffic. Product placement can be a tool for brand destruction as much as brand promotion. Seven years ago the movie Sideways surprised everyone with a remarkable following at the box office and then on DVD. It featured an out-of-luck wine buff called Miles on a trip to Sonoma, California.

Miles’s apparent expertise and his strongly expressed opinions on one particular grape – “I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot” – led to a significant and prolonged dip in US and UK purchasing of the unfortunate varietal.

One final product placement story also bears repeating. In 1981, when Steven Spielberg was working on his next major movie, he approached the confectionery giant Mars because the script included a scene in which a newly landed extra terrestrial was gradually lured into a family home using chocolate M&Ms. The brand management team at Mars, however, were a classically conservative bunch of marketers and were uncomfortable with the lack of control they would have over their brand’s presentation. So Spielberg turned instead to Hershey, and its product Reese’s Pieces, which jumped at the idea and later saw sales volumes grow by two-thirds as a result of the tie-in.

In the newly arrived world of British product placement let that be a lesson to you. You want to be Reese’s Pieces and not M&Ms.

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