LESSON FROM AMERICA

When it comes to television sponsorship, the UK and the US

The US is regarded by many as the home of broadcast sponsorship, and when the UK made its first, fumbling steps into the area, there were two main camps in this country. There were those who wanted to embrace the US experience wholeheartedly, and produce a near-identical system, and those who wanted to avoid what they saw as the excesses of that system, and produce something refined – British, yet still commercially viable.

The US has been using broadcast sponsorship since the Thirties, when hugely successful campaigns were created around popular radio shows. When the US began developing its television networks after the Second World War, they were commercial stations from the outset, and sponsorship played a role immediately.

European television networks, on the other hand, were state-run, public broadcasting systems, with the UK’s introduction of commercial television in 1955 seen by many as a daring experiment – some European countries have only allowed advertising on television in the past five years.

The continuing distrust of television advertising and sponsorship can be seen to this day in the various Draconian laws being discussed by the European Commission.

To Americans, however, advertising and sponsorship are largely indistinguishable. Rick Jones, managing director, Europe at sponsorship organiser Advantage International, says: “What you British define as ‘broadcast sponsorship’, we call television advertising.”

Jones believes, however, that the UK will soon follow the US in its use of event and broadcast sponsorship – if only because of the dominant effect in both markets of one major player. “The single biggest player in the UK is also the single biggest player in the US – Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is outbidding people in both the US and the UK for the right to broadcast events. He’s forcing non-commercial stations in both countries to become more commercial.”

Not all broadcast sponsorship relates to sporting events, and there is sponsorship of sporting events that are not televised, but most major sporting events in both the UK and the US now could not exist without broadcast sponsorship, and to many in the industry the two have become inseparable. It is accepted that if a sporting event is being sponsored, then it is being broadcast and vice versa.

There are major differences still, however. David Prosser, head of sponsorship at Carlton and a member of the ITV Sponsorship Committee, points out that UK broadcasters are still bound by the restrictions imposed by the UK regulatory body, the Independent Television Commission, and by European Union rules.

Whereas in the US, sponsorship will be sold as a package which includes spot ads, on-air mentions, and even product placement or blatant plugs, sponsorship in the UK is largely restricted to pre and post-programme and ad break “billboard” credits. Breaking into the actual programme to mention the product or sponsor is out, unless it happens to be a quiz show, in which case the sponsor could also have provided the prize and would be allowed to have a mention. Otherwise, as Prosser says: “ITV supports the ban on editorial support or any interference with editorial integrity.”

BSkyB, Prosser says, is bound by most of the same rules as ITV, although it is not restricted on the length of credits it can use, and it can call a programme by the sponsor’s name. Therefore, it could have “The Ford Match” for a Ford-sponsored quiz show, while ITV would have to call it, “The Match – sponsored by Ford”.

The BBC, on the other hand, is banned by its own rules from taking sponsorship per se, but effectively does it through the back door – a bone of much contention with the ITV stations, Prosser admits.

The BBC is not officially allowed to show sponsored events that have been created just to be broadcast, but is allowed to televise events that would exist independently.

For many years now, questions have been raised by its rivals about whether some of the events it sponsors really would have an independent existence, as well as about the presence on the BBC of a number of tobacco-sponsored events. “Event sponsors on the BBC get far more prominence than ITV would ever allow,” says Prosser.

ITV is also now allowed to take advertiser-funded programmes, but again has to be very careful about scanning their content to make sure there are no references to that advertiser’s products. It would still be very difficult to show the original version of the Magic Mirror, for example, the Kellogg-funded children’s television story series, which featured the Kellogg K symbol as an integral part of the set design.

Thomas Hensey, marketing director of sponsorship agency First Artist Corporation, is another American working in London. His company has been working with Sky TV, supplying it with advertiser-funded sports programmes.

He says: “I won’t necessarily sell my programmes to Sky – I might give them away, in return for a guaranteed good time slot, good advance promotions, airtime around the programme and half a dozen 30-second commercials within an hour.

“We used this for Honda with the Evening Standard ‘Five a Side’ football challenge, where 16 London teams were on Sky for five hours. Honda was able to say to consumers ‘come and test drive a new Celica and you’ll get a free autographed football from your favourite team’. We brought the idea over from the US – you don’t see it happening much in the UK.”

Tim Brady, head of sponsorship at TV sales house TSMS and another member of the ITV Sponsorship Committee, says: “We do not sell packages of sponsorship to go with TV ads. It’s impossible to tie up a national deal as such. I’ve had discussions with Americans where they’ve said ‘here’s the programme, the sponsor’s in place, now he can have the first slot in each ad break, can’t he?’ I have to tell them it does not work like that on ITV. Sponsorship isn’t advertising, and I don’t see it becoming that.”

The ITV stations are not the only broadcasters that are having to reassess the way they look at sponsorship. Radio stations are also having to become much more professional about the area, according to Lesley Kerrell, sponsorship and promotions manager for radio sales house MSM, which is developing national sponsorship opportunities on independent local radio stations around the UK.

“We’re now competing against other national radio stations and against other national media,” says Kerrell. “We have to provide national sponsorship opportunities, and we’re becoming much more sport-oriented – we are offering a number of major sporting events over the next year, including Euro 96 and the Olympics.”

But, she adds: “Sponsorship is very much a programming issue. We have got very close to the heads of programming at our stations to find out about their philosophies.”

This concern with the quality of programming is very much a British obsession when sponsorship is involved, and is regarded by many sponsorship experts with mixed feelings. It seems to relate back to the question of what clients expect to get out of their sponsorship.

“In America, clients think quantity rather than quality,” says Mike Bloxham, managing director of UK agency The Bloxham Group. “Sponsorship is much more sales-promotion-led than in the UK – it’s moving boxes rather than image-building. Over here, it wasn’t very long ago that people were saying you can’t sell product through sponsorship, although Carling’s experiences with Premier League Football show you can. Fundamentally, it’s a cultural difference.”

Oddly, the result of this fundamentally different approach to sponsorship has been that while US experts shake their heads at what they see as the lack of commercial success of UK sponsorship, they are very impressed with the brand-building contribution it makes Bloxham, a Brit, has just returned from a major conference on sponsorship in Chicago, where he found Americans “saying the British were better at qualitative use of sponsorship – but we could be better at hard-nosed, bottom-line use”.

Emma Ward of advertising agency Billington Jackson has just conducted extensive research into sponsorship for an MA in marketing. She found that the UK is “emerging from an embryonic state and so is particularly vulnerable to varying degrees of fault and misjudgment”. The biggest gap, she says is in “thorough and conclusive consumer research, which means pre-analysis – strategic planning – cannot be as consolidated and constructive as it should. This is a significant reason why broadcast sponsorship has not taken off in the fashion that it should have done.”

Another reason has been the lack of TV channels, she adds. Unlike the US, where consumers have access to 20 or more channels (and could soon be zapping through 500), the UK is relatively restricted.

Jones agrees: “Companies in the US are very sophisticated at meeting quantifiable marketing objectives. I don’t see that sort of sophistication in the UK in terms of sponsors wanting to move boxes. But brand-building is coming back into fashion in the US, and the UK does a better job of building brands through sponsorship than we do in the US. The US could learn from the UK about brand-building – and the UK could learn how to use sponsorship to move boxes.”

The ITV Sponsorship Committee is conducting major tracking studies – but ITV is likely to resist any attempts to change the way sponsorship is used in the UK to ape the US hard-sell approach, judging from Prosser’s words. He believes any attempts to mirror the US system would be doomed to failure. “Our research shows that the public wouldn’t take it. It would be the biggest turn-off.”

The real question, though, is whether ITV will be able to stick to its quality threshold in the face of increasing pressure from Sky, cable television, other satellite broadcasters and even BT. With the enormous increase in demand for programming that the continuing deregulation of the broadcast industry is bound to create, quality may be forced to give way to quantity.

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