U.K. Opens the Floodgates for Product Placement on TV Shows

No More Pixelated Coke Logos as Government Takes Mercy on Ailing Broadcasters

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- U.K. broadcasters have been handed a lifeline by new culture secretary Ben Bradshaw, who has allowed commercial product placement on British TV for the first time, drawing strong reactions from all sides.

Simon Cowell, Shania Twain and Coca-Cola on 'American Idol'
Simon Cowell, Shania Twain and Coca-Cola on 'American Idol' Credit: Ray Mickshaw / FOX
No one believes that product placement can save the TV industry, but there are hopes that the ad practice can be part of an effort to develop more creative strategies to offset the decline in commercials and bring in new sources of revenue. Screen Digest estimates that product placement could bring in as much as $150 million next year, set against $4.88 billion from traditional TV advertising in 2010.

Geoff Russell, director of media affairs at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, is one of the few voices approving the change. He said, "If it provides revenue to commercial broadcasters at a time when they are on the rack then we support it."

TV a 'public service'
But Mr. Russell understands the objections. He said, "Because of the [non-commercial] BBC, many people see broadcasting as a public service vehicle and don't want the purity of programs subverted for commercial gain. There's a strange attitude in U.K. society that sees business and profit as slightly grubby. In the U.S., where there's no BBC, people understand that broadcast television has to be paid for."

For Americans used to seeing Simon Cowell swigging Coke as he passes judgment on "American Idol" hopefuls, and news anchors sipping McDonald's coffee as they deliver the morning bulletin, it may come as a surprise that British consumers are squeamish about such unfamiliar scenarios.

In the country's most popular soap, "Coronation Street," customers at the Rover's Return pub drink a fictional beer, Newton & Ridley, served on beer mats bearing the mock brewer's logo. Viewers are used to seeing actors and presenters picking up bottles in such a way as to disguise the brand name, and even to seeing logos covered up with tape. When "American Idol" is shown in Britain, the Coke logo on Mr. Cowell's cup is pixillated in an attempt to disguise it.

The sensitive British public is quite happy to see brands enjoying a prominent presence at televised sporting events -- on shirts, shoes and equipment, and all around the grounds and racetracks -- but viewers balk at their inclusion elsewhere on TV.

Even the TV industry has reservations about product placement, nervous that the money will come out of advertising budgets going to commercial spots. Tess Alps, chief executive of the TV marketing body Thinkbox, said, "There is no doubt that this is a fair decision, but it won't help anyone if the money is just moved from other TV activity. I hope that placement agencies and producers won't try to sell placement by undermining spot advertising."

Special restrictions will keep product placement out of children's shows and news programming and seek to guarantee editorial independence, but both consumers and marketers worry that once the door has been opened, there will be no end to the intrusion of brands into our living rooms.

Richard Lindley, chairman of Voice of the Listener & Viewer, demonstrates Mr. Russell's point. He said, "[Product placement] will contaminate the programs and break the trust between the viewer and the broadcaster. This is a terrible way to go for a relatively small sum of money that won't save commercial broadcasters.

"It doesn't really matter if actors drink Coke or Pepsi, but people don't realize what will happen -- we'll have programs written for advertisers and not viewers," he said. "It's treating broadcasting as a commercial commodity -- but it's always been more than that in this country."

Marketers are also cautious in their reaction to the news -- partly because it means they will have to pay for something that, until now, has been free. Most adult shows are allowed to use props bearing logos, as long as no money has exchanged hands and they are not given prominence.

A statement from the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers said, "It would formalize a currently informal market, leading broadcasters to seek greater returns for such interventions in content, and in raising costs it would increase advertiser expectations of return for their outlay, thus creating increased pressure on the content itself, in turn leading to the likelihood of viewer dissatisfaction."

However Simon Willis, head of programming at Mindshare Worldwide, a media agency that has a successful branded-entertainment operation in many markets, believes that advertisers should be excited by the opportunities that product placement offers to both marketers and viewers.

He said, "It can benefit marketers in a way that spot advertising and sponsorship can't, by achieving an emotional connection which is great for the brand. At the same time, it can make dramas more authentic: Imagine a cool hero driving a cool new car -- it becomes desirable to the audience and [through product placement] affordable to the program makers."

Even as a proponent of product placement who has made TV shows for Nike, Dove, LG and Jamie Oliver, Mr. Willis does have some sympathy with the objectors. He said, "It makes me wince when I'm watching 'American Idol' in the U.S. and I see Simon Cowell standing in front of a brand logo. I think, 'What's that doing?' The U.S. audience is used to it but here we aren't, and when obvious paid placement is not adding to the narrative, I question what it does for a brand."

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