Just how hard is it to get a plug on TV programmes?

In ITV1’s Emmerdale on Friday, viewers were treated to a succession of product plugs, for Gillette razors, Aquafresh toothpaste, the Renault Mégane and the latest Nokia phone. Not in the ad breaks, but in the programme itself.

Product placement is officially banned on British TV, but there are agencies whose job it is to make sure brands get seen – and The Sunday Times claims to have exposed some very shady practice

In ITV1’s Emmerdale on Friday, viewers were treated to a succession of product plugs, for Gillette razors, Aquafresh toothpaste, the Renault Mégane and the latest Nokia phone. Not in the ad breaks, but in the programme itself.

On Sunday, the BBC was accused of doing much the same, plugging products in dramas ranging from Spooks to Murphy’s Law and Hotel Babylon.

Neither broadcaster is allowed to do so under current rules.

The difference was that the Emmerdale episode had been mocked up for a debate on product placement at the Royal Television Society Convention in Cambridge, prompted by Ofcom’s forthcoming consultation into whether product placement should be allowed.

By contrast, the BBC products were seen by millions, according to allegations in The Sunday Times, which are now being investigated by the corporation.

Product placement has been around for almost as long as TV, although in this country it doesn’t involve a formal contract between advertiser and broadcaster. Legend has it that the deal often consists of a fistful of fivers between a middleman and one of the production team, to ensure a product is facing the camera and lingers in shot longer than is quite necessary. But there are also agencies that are paid by advertisers to supply products free of charge for productions – a practice they maintain is quite legitimate.

The BBC’s position is relatively clear. Its editorial guidelines prohibit product placement: “We must never include a product or service in sound or vision in return for cash, services or any consideration in kind. This is product placement. It is illegal to make any such arrangements in the EU.”

But the guidelines also say: “We need to be able to reflect the real world and this will involve referring to commercial products, organisations and services in our output.”

The Sunday Times claims the rules are being broken. It says the head of a production company making a new programme for the BBC allegedly agreed to place a bottle of beer in a prominent position after being approached by two “businessmen”. In fact, they were undercover reporters and the beer was fictitious. The paper also spoke to two product placement agents, who claimed it was easy to get their clients’ products into BBC programmes. They said one drama prop master “appeared oblivious to the BBC guidelines”.

The BBC launched an immediate investigation, saying it took any breaches of its guidelines very seriously.

But one of those quoted in The Sunday Times has publicly defended his actions. Darryl Collis, the managing director of Seesaw Media, a specialist product placement agency, told Radio 4’s PM programme: “We are retained by a variety of products with the aim of increasing exposure for them on programmes. Like a PR agency or any other marketing agency, we represent brands and the programme-makers are aware that these are available if a scripted scene needs it.”

Collis said there were two key issues: “No payment is changing hands – we simply provide products free of charge to programmes if they need them. And we don’t push it. We never guarantee anything – we can’t, we don’t push the product in that way.”

Even if no payment has changed hands, there is another issue. The product must not be given “undue prominence” on the screen or in dialogue.

The BBC guidelines say: “We must avoid any undue prominence or giving the impression that we are promoting or endorsing products, organisations or services. To achieve this we must: ensure that references to trade names, brand names and slogans are clearly editorially justified; not linger on brand names or logos and use verbal references sparingly unless there are very strong journalistic reasons for repeated references to a brand; not accept free or reduced cost products or services in return for on-air or online credits, hotlinks or off-air marketing.”

So why is Ofcom considering lifting the ban on product placement? It cites “the pressure on traditional broadcast advertising as a key source of funding for commercial broadcasters”. Budgets are being squeezed, so TV companies need to look for other ways to keep advertisers on their airwaves.

At the RTS Convention, Unilever vice-president of global marketing Alan Rutherford spelled out the problem: “Globally, our spending on TV advertising has gone down by 20 per cent in three years,” he said. “Advertisers have got to follow the viewers, and we’re now spending more on posters, online and relationship marketing.”

But Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan, formerly head of marketing at Unilever, said product placement wasn’t the right way to keep advertisers on TV: “If Unilever, Nestlé or Ford start paying millions for product placement, they will want to shape the content. There’s no doubt about it.”

The reports of the BBC investigation and the Ofcom review will make fascinating reading.

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