Product Placement Faces Wary Welcome in Britain

Despite EU's Approval, Tactic Still Seen as Sneaky by Cynical U.K. Public

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Long regarded as one of marketing's "black arts" by a cynical U.K. public, product placement has finally been given the go-ahead by the European Parliament's culture committee, putting pressure on individual countries to embrace the practice.

But probably not right away. Broadcasters first have to figure out how to comply with one peculiar requirement: They must inform viewers every 20 minutes which products have been placed in a show. It's likely to be a year or more before commercial TV channels and marketers agree on an acceptable method of warning viewers, allowing product placement to take off as a mainstream marketing tool in the U.K.

While product placement is commonplace in the U.S., it's still a controversial issue in the U.K., where the practice is seen as sneaky advertising. Branded products are used and supplied free by prop companies in the U.K. as a way of reducing program-making costs. But a drop in traditional ad revenue may help overcome the British disdain for American-style branded content and product placement. ITV1, the U.K.'s main commercial channel, saw advertising and sponsorship revenue fall 12.5% in 2006, indicating a clear need to find new ways of raising money.

Laurence Munday, founding partner of Drum, London, a content-partnership agency that is part of Omnicom Group's PHD media network, said, "Product placement is a financial opportunity for broadcasters who need new revenue opportunities. In principal, it is a good thing that it will now be a proper commercial enterprise."

British TV viewers already see a lot of product placement when they watch imported U.S. shows such as "Desperate Housewives" (Buick), "The OC" (Mustang) and "24" (Cisco). Coca-Cola's presence in "American Idol" is unmistakable, even though the trademark bottles are pixilated (digitally blurred out) for U.K. transmission.

Product placement is likely to become commonplace in the U.K. in the next couple of years, but even seasoned practitioners have reservations about its use. Gemma Newland, managing director of Omnicom content agency Stream, London, said, "The U.K. is a more marketing-savvy country than the U.S. In the U.S. the route taken by marketers is often very cheesy and obvious, with products used for no logical reason. This would be rejected in the U.K., and people would be offended."

Ms. Newland said she has been having more conversations with marketers about the possibilities of product placement and how to do it. Her first piece of advice to them is not to use it in isolation-it must be part of a brand's whole strategy. She also stresses the importance of a logical connection, and that it should be about engaging the consumer, not just product exposure.

The movie industry has in some cases set a good precedent, showing that brands such as James Bond's Aston Martin can be skillfully scripted into a drama. And Stream itself negotiated a multilayered placement deal for marketer Eurostar in the "The Da Vinci Code."

In the book version of "The Da Vinci Code," the characters travel between London and Paris on a plane. In the film, they travel by train on Eurostar, engaging the consumer and bringing the product to life. Stream worked with its client to make the most of Eurostar's promotional rights, even rerouting the train to Cannes for the film festival, where junkets took place onboard. An online promotion invited consumers to go on a treasure hunt through French and English websites.

The challenge now is to bring this creativity to embedding products on U.K. TV. "We Brits are cynical about clunky brand communications, and as practitioners we also kick against it," said Nick Walford, chief operating officer of MindShare Performance, London. "[The process] needs to be carefully managed and thought through, so that we overcome our reservations."
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