U-turn on product placement fails to ignite TV industry

The Government has indicated it is in favour of lifting the ban on product placement on commercial TV in the UK, but few are convinced such a move will pay dividends.

Media and marketing professionals argue that the Government’s anticipated U-turn over product placements on British TV “will come nowhere near rejuvenating the struggling industry”.

Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw is expected to announce a three-month consultation period on the issue and indicate that he is strongly in favour of lifting the current ban on product placement for all channels, except the BBC, at the Royal Television Society conference today (Wednesday).

A paper from ITV and the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television submitted to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in December 2008, argued that the UK product placement market could be worth as much as £100m a year. But Sam Davidson, a media consultant at Starmedia, says this is likely to be a misguided prediction.

She argues: “British TV is produced differently to US TV and doesn’t present brands with many opportunities for product placement.

“The way brands are highlighted in US shows, such as Chrysler in Desperate Housewives and Coca-Cola in American Idol, would work well on shows such as Hollyoaks and The X Factor, but otherwise I can’t see its relevance or how it is better than sponsorship.”

Broadcasters are aiming to emulate the success of commercial digital rivals such as Bebo, which have integrated product placement in their online shows. According to ITV, the “new sources of revenue mean better funded content, which can only be good for viewers”.

However, Michael Stremstor, director of production house Thunder Media, says: “Imagine that for every cookery show, the TV executives will say ‘which products will we able to charge to talk about and show on camera a lot?’ Viewers aren’t stupid and may not like this. It will devalue content.”

Brand marketers seem equally unsure if product placement will really solve broadcasters’ financial issues. Sources at large advertisers have mixed views. Some claim it is a “short-term opportunity for a small slice of a marketing budget”.

But one electronics marketer – who did not wish to be named – was more enthusiastic: “Lines in scripts like ‘That’s a nice TV.’ ‘Thanks, it’s the latest in the range’ are great for getting a certain demographic interested in the series and looking online to see which retailers sell it at the lowest price. The ‘As Seen on TV’ sticker has never been so relevant.”

However, the marketer maintains that product placement is unlikely to be a core method of spending budgets. “Presence at big events generates much more attention and recall,” he claims.

Those who have already experimented with product placement are also unsure that much will change. Some advertisers get their brands on screen under the prop placement system, which allows them to pay a relatively small sum to get products registered with agencies that then supply props to TV production companies.

A brand manager for an automotive company reports: “We have paid to have our cars discreetly featured on TV shows in the hope that savvy viewers recognise the vehicles and are able to recall them instantly; alas, we have seen very little interest.”

The Government consultation will take several months and lobby groups are already preparing to appeal the ban’s lifting. Richard Lindley, chairman of independent group Voice of the Listener and Viewer, warns: “It will contaminate TV and inevitably lead to placements on news and current affairs programmes. We believe product placement destroys the trust of viewers in programmes.”

With such mixed reviews, it appears the future of UK product placement is still part of a developing story. A happy ending for broadcasters and brands is by no means assured.

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