Back in 1982, when Stephen Spielberg’s hit film ET featured the chocolate brand Reese’s Pieces, rival confectioner Mars kicked itself for refusing the film’s original offer to showcase its M&M’s brand. Sales of Reese’s Pieces rocketed by 85% following the brand’s big-screen appearance.
While product placement in the US is reportedly worth around $10bn a year, regulations in the UK have in the past prevented such an industry emerging on this side of the Atlantic. Now, however, the Government has performed a U-turn (see box, opposite) and marketers are anxious to learn how consumers might react if product placement was to become a reality in the UK.
According to a survey of 1,000 UK consumers, conducted for Marketing Week by Lightspeed Research, the majority of us are oblivious to product placement. Just 31% claim to have ever noticed a product being advertised within a film or television programme. And most worrying for marketers, 81% say they feel it will have no impact on their purchasing decisions – a figure that remains consistent when respondents are asked the same question about specific brands, including Starbucks, Ford, Tesco, Coca-Cola, Nokia and McDonald’s.
Even when asked about films belonging to the James Bond franchise, which make heavy use of product placement, less than half of consumers claim to have noticed that brands such as Aston Martin cars, Omega watches and Smirnoff vodka are featured. Of the 67% questioned who have seen a Bond film in the past three years, just 46% say they noticed the product placement.
Lightspeed EMEA marketing director Ralph Risk says/ “Product placement is almost part of the Bond experience. People expect to see him with the latest gadget, watch or car. These are things people can aspire to and it fits with the ethos of the character of James Bond.”
Brands on screen
Risk says this example is positive for marketers because it demonstrates that brands can be used to enhance a programme and add to its realism for viewers. Overall, 60% of the people surveyed think that product placement should be allowed on British TV programmes. This figure rises to 65% for 18 to 34-year-olds, but falls to 53% for those aged between 55 and 64 years old. However, given the disinterested attitudes of the survey respondents towards seeing brands on screen, is there any point in marketers putting their products there at all?
Risk counters that just because people don’t recognise the effect product placement has on them does not mean it has no impact. “If you ask anyone what influence advertising has on them, they are probably going to say it does not have much effect. But the whole point of product placement is that it is subtle and raises brand awareness. People won’t look at a product shown in a film or TV programme and go out and buy it the next day. It is more about leveraging the emotional attachment a person has to a particular programme on TV,” he explains.
Dave Brennan, research and strategy director for the UK broadcasters’ marketing body Thinkbox, agrees. He cites Thinkbox’s own research, which asks people what they think of product placement in TV-on-demand. Most respond by saying they haven’t even noticed it.
However, Brennan adds: “Once they had seen it in context, they were happy with it, as it was a normal part of a scene.” But he stresses that this is only the case “as long as it is natural and adds to the reality of a programme, because it will then reflect the real world we live in, rather than fictional brands that nobody has heard of”.
“We have seen few examples of advertisers that create content abusing the system because it is based on trust. They also want to create content that is enjoyable and not ruined with a cheap commercial message”
Dave Brennan, Thinkbox
The type of programmes in which people are willing to accept product placement varies widely. Fifty-eight per cent think it is acceptable in soap operas, 41% in dramas and 37% in sports coverage. However, consumers are less keen to see brands pop up in documentaries (20%), news (16%) and period dramas (15%).
And consumers feel particularly strongly about product placement in children’s programmes, with just 9% claiming to find this acceptable. Such results appear to justify the Government’s decision that product placement should not appear in children’s programmes or current affairs shows
Lightspeed’s Risk says: “Using product placement to advertise to children is an obvious taboo; nor would it work very well in period dramas and documentaries because it would jar with what the programme would be about and look out of place. In a soap opera or drama, however, it wouldn’t look out of place. Viewers realise it is not reality and it is more accepted.”
Rory Teeling, planning director at advertising agency DCH, believes the Government needs to continue to guard “those who need protecting” in terms of banning product placement in children’s shows and news programmes.
Teeling warns: “It might start to get controversial when we look at what programmes product placement will be allowed to feature in. A newsreader is portrayed as the bastion of morality, so it is hard to imagine them fiddling with an iPod or a new phone in between news stories.
But would it be OK for them to drink coffee out of a Nescafé-branded cup?”
Consideration of which type of shows are more appropriate to product placement is particularly important for older consumers because the younger people are, the more open they are to the further commercialisation of TV. Seventy-one per cent of respondents aged 55 to 64 years old think restrictions should apply to product placement, compared with 62% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 68% of 35- to 54-year-olds surveyed.
Similarly, 81% of 55- to 64-year-olds think TV is already too commercial, compared with 71% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 73% of 35- to 54-year-olds questioned.
Brand consultancy Madigan Cluff has carried out research into the types of programmes that UK television channels have available which could be open to product placement.
Senior partner Michael Cluff believes lifestyle and reality programmes are particularly attractive to marketers. “There are a number of programmes that have a high proportion of airtime, such as I’m a Celebrity…, The X Factor, Come Dine With Me, The F Word, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. These are clearly the largest opportunities for placement,” he says. “Brands will need to decide which programmes offer the right audience in demographic terms, but there is equally an issue of how a brand can fit the editorial of the programme.”
DCH’s Teeling and Brennan at Thinkbox both believe advertisers and the public are savvy enough to recognise when the line between product placement and over-the-top advertising is being crossed.
As a result, they say the product placement sector is likely to be policed through existing voluntary bodies and, ultimately, by the public voicing its concern. They also believe fears about losing ratings and attracting complaints from the public would mean advertisers and broadcasters can be trusted to reach a consensus about what is acceptable in terms of product placement.
“The advertising market in the UK is mature and sophisticated,” says Brennan. “We have seen few examples of advertisers and organisations that create content abusing the system because it is based on trust. They also want to create content that is enjoyable and not ruined with a cheap commercial message that jars with the sense of the programme.”
Brands with large UK operations are also keen to stress they are aware that US-style product placement would not always be acceptable to consumers this side of the Atlantic.
O2 marketing director Sally Cowdry says: “As with all brand communications, product placement must be relevant for the end consumer and not alienate by being overt and in-your-face. To work, it would need to be subtle and pertinent to viewers, as well as a cost-effective way of delivering a message for us.”
Coca-Cola, known for its prominent branding on American Idol, has also promised to behave responsibly in the UK. “We have already made a number of industry-leading commitments, including a pledge not to market any drinks to children under 12. So we will not only keep to all statutory guidelines but go beyond them where we feel it is the right thing to do,” a UK source reveals.
A source from a major coffee chain cites other concerns that brands face when it comes to product placement on UK screens. “We would need to consider whether the TV programme is a good fit with our brand, if the scene the product would be in portrays our brand accurately, and if the audience was appropriate,” he says.
With 36% of respondents in Lightspeed’s survey claiming to be concerned that product placement could potentially affect their enjoyment of a programme, brand marketers have a responsibility to ensure their products enhance, rather than dominate, programmes in which they feature.
Nevertheless, Lightspeed’s Risk believes the survey shows the UK public, and in particular men aged between 18 and 34 years old, are ready to accept product placement.
Thinkbox’s Brennan believes product placement will experience slow, organic growth and its impact will be carefully assessed during each step of its introductory period. “This will be an experimental period where people will begin to understand the best ways of integrating it,” he says. “There will not be a gold rush to fill every programme with branding. We will see more of it, but there is never going to be an avalanche of commercialised programmes.”
PRODUCT PLACEMENT ON BRITISH TV
In March last year, the Government announced that the economic benefit of product placement was not sufficient to “outweigh the detrimental impact it would have on the quality and standards of British television”. But after a year of consultation, the Government announced on 9 February it would allow product placement, but not such items as alcohol and foods high in fat, salt and sugar. However, before UK broadcasters can begin product placements, regulator Ofcom is to run a further consultation that is to be completed later this year. Broadcasters stand to make £30m a year from placements in the next five years, according to Ofcom; other forecasts suggest this figure could be as high as £140m.