U.K. Unlikely to Follow E.U.'s Relaxed Stance on Product Placement

Culture Secretary Maintains It 'Contaminates' Programs

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- The European Union is set to relax rules regarding product placement starting in 2010, but the U.K. seems unlikely to budge.

The U.K. Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, dashed marketers' hopes in the U.K. by declaring on June 11 that product placement "contaminates our programs." Speaking at a U.K. Government think-tank meeting, he said, "As a viewer, I don't want to feel the script has been written by the commercial marketing director."
U.K. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham
U.K. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham Credit: Daniel Berehulak

Drawing the line
Mr. Burnham added, "I want to signal that there are some lines we should not cross, one of which is that you can buy the space between the programs on commercial channels, but not the space within them."

There is still a widespread cultural aversion to product placement in the U.K., despite the popularity of many U.S. shows that use it. In cases where the placement is very obvious -- such as Coca Cola's presence on "American Idol" -- the brands are pixillated for U.K. broadcast.

However, on U.S. shows such as "Sex and the City," where Apple computers are prominent but relevant, British consumers seem to accept product placement.

Rupert Howell, managing director of brand and commercial at Britain's biggest commercial TV network ITV, is an enthusiastic campaigner for the introduction of product placement in the U.K. The former adman -- he founded London agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury -- vowed to keep up the fight to permit product placement.

Debate can continue
Mr. Burnham, who is ultimately responsible for whether product placement will be legalized in the U.K., may have spoken out against it, but the government consultation on the subject does not officially end for another six weeks.

Mr. Howell said, "We will engage in the consultation. We believe we can prove it's beneficial to everybody: the viewer, the advertisers and the broadcaster. If you do it badly, viewers punish you by turning over. We don't want to drive this underground."

British commercial television has been hit by falling advertising revenues and a spate of scandals linked to premium-rate phone lines. Viewer participation in shows and on-air competitions via the telephone had become a big source of revenue for commercial TV, but recent exposures of deception have broken viewer trust and limited phone lines' viability as an alterative income source.

Mr. Burnham said, "There is a risk that product placement exacerbates this decline in trust and contaminates our programs. I can see the arguments and the benefits of product placement and understand why people feel it is an inevitability given the pressures they are under, but I can also see the costs."

'Disappointing' news
Ian Twinn, the director of public affairs at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, said in a statement, "The news is both disappointing and unsurprising. While some advertisers would welcome the opportunity to have a broader range of channels with which to engage consumers, the signals from Government have been consistently negative.

"British advertisers would not want full-scale, U.S.-style product placement, but there is an opportunity here for the Government to both spread the burden of funding U.K. television and still introduce rules that would complement the viewing publics taste for quality content. This simple rejection of product placement will leave both media and business puzzled by the lost opportunity."
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