Why product placement won’t be damaging anyone’s health

The current grey market for PP may be not be ideal but it beats the minefield of the overtly commercial system Ofcom must negotiate

What a pity Andy Burnham was ever promoted from the department of culture, media and sport to be health secretary earlier this year. Had he still been in place we would now be spared one of the most pointless of media debates: product placement, can it seriously damage your health?

Burnham, despite pressure to bring British television into line with the rest of Europe by liberalising paid-for product placement, kicked the idea firmly into touch early last year, much to the consternation of, among others, Michael Grade, then executive chairman of ITV, and Viviane Reding, European commissioner for media and information.

There it would have lain for some time to come, were it not for the astonishing decision of his successor, Ben Bradshaw, to put PP back on the table. What prompted this? Bradshaw probably felt his predecessor’s decision was a perverse stand of principle completely out of touch with the tide of the times. He also took the view that it was a painless way of throwing a bone to the hard-pressed commercial sector, while he got down to his true mission: giving the BBC a good kicking.

In this latter assumption he was quite wrong. “Painless” is not how I would describe the task of media regulator Ofcom as it attempts to pick its way through the minefield of explosive opinions sewn by Bradshaw’s decision to open the matter to consultation three months ago.

It’s no great surprise to find the medical profession, children’s charities and teaching unions ranged against the proposal. Stripped of rhetoric, their argument boils down to two points. Paid-for product placement will undermine the quality of TV drama by perverting the storyline towards naked commercial ends. And, more importantly, PP will corrupt young and impressionable minds with subliminal brand messages plying fatty foods and sickly sweet drinks, not to mention the siren attractions of alcohol and gambling.

More troubling for Ofcom, however, is the opposition of two constituencies that might otherwise be thought heartland supporters: the independent TV production sector and advertisers themselves (represented by trade body ISBA).

Their hostility, almost needless to say, stems from less sentimental concerns. They believe the Ofcom product placement proposals are an expensive waste of time. PP will generate little income, and that of no benefit to anyone other than the broadcasters; at the same time it will put in place a structure that could damage any remaining public trust in commercial television.

To see why, let’s look at PP mechanics a little more closely.

It’s an open secret that UK TV product placement is already ubiquitous; the qualification is that neither independent production houses nor broadcasters may charge for it. It’s to be found in films, like the Bond movies and I Robot; not to mention every syndicated American TV show, from 24 Hours to Desperate Housewives, that makes it on to UK television.

No doubt about it, the current system encourages a distorted market, because US advertisers, such as Coca-Cola in American Idol, effectively get a second, free, ride when their placements appear over here. And yet, there are compensations. A “grey market” specifically focused on UK-produced programmes has long been allowed to flourish. It gets around the regulations by giving branded props, free of charge, to programme makers. Specialist agencies take a turn, but because TV stations can’t touch a penny, brand-owners remain quids in. It’s a false market that works tolerably well for everyone except the broadcasters.

Introduce paid-for PP, however, and the delicate ecology of the present system will be shattered. No longer would it be a case of lending a bit of verisimilitude to TV drama with a “real life” prop. Instead, we would have a formal auction – the corollary of “transparency” – in which the ultimate determinant is no longer editorial relevance but who is prepared to bid the highest price. Brand owners, forced to pay a much higher premium, might become domineering in their demands. And the whole process of commercialisation would be driven to a new fever-pitch by the existence of specialised, target-driven, sales teams (whether within the broadcast companies, production houses or both is not yet clear).

Yet, what would be the pay-off of all this deregulation? Painfully little it seems. Consensus estimates forwarded to Ofcom suggest paid-for PP could be worth up to £30m within five years of being introduced. That’s really going to make a difference to the £4.4bn national broadcast advertising pot! And then there are the softer, not-specifically-commercial, disadvantages to consider. ISBA is worried (rightly so, I suspect) that added product prominence will lead to an avalanche of complaints from viewers: self-evidently an own-goal for commercial TV and advertisers alike.

That’s not even to cost in policing the new system (through an industry levy, perhaps?). Or what might be lost through cannibalisation of the existing “props” regime.

So Ofcom is left holding a hot potato: passing judgement on the introduction of a system that no one in their right mind would want in its proposed form.

Well, almost no one. Some readers might accuse me of perversely concentrating on the short-term consequences of introducing paid-for PP when its real significance lies far in the future. There is no doubt that over time its migratory, cross-channel versatility as a branding device will become more valued (all the more so given the likely decline of TV ad revenue). A show may begin on TV, but its trajectory is likely to include re-runs, possibly on other channels, export, the internet and DVDs. How useful (or pernicious, depending on your point of view) to have an impregnated branding message that travels so freely across the communications ether. Whether product placement will ever add up to a significant part of the communications budget, however, remains debatable.