Monday, 28 February 2011

UK ends ban on TV product placement

Starting today television viewers in the UK are going to start noticing a lot more Coke cans, Sony TVs and Motorola phones in their favourite television programmes – as the ban on product placement is officially lifted in the UK. But it won't be the anything-goes system now prevalent in America - product placement for a wide variety of products including unhealthy foods will still not be allowed and viewers will be alerted by a 'P' logo on their screen when they are watching a show with product placement.

The change in policy follows years of lobbying from Britain's private broadcasters, who said they needed the revenue from product placement to ensure their long-term survival. Product placement has been allowed in the European Union since the Broadcasting Directive was passed in 2007. At that time, most EU states that had bans ended them. But the UK opted to maintain their ban, with Labour's Culture Secretary Andy Burnham saying at the time that the UK needed to "maintain levels of trust between audiences and broadcasters, and protect the standards of broadcasting for which Britain is known worldwide."

But the EU criticised the decision to keep the ban, saying British television producers would be at a disadvantage when competing with their American and continental competitors. Viviane Reding, who was information commissioner at the time, told the BBC she was "astonished" by the Labour government's decision to, "oppose a source of revenue for its creative media". She noted that, "it is legal in the US, and US productions are disseminated in Europe without a level playing field," adding, "I want to get rid of this discrimination of our own domestic products." The argument was essentially that product placements were being shown in Europe anyway through American TV shows (which represents around 60% of non-news programming in most EU countries), so why should only American television producers be making money off of it?

But the lack of product mentions on British television was something that the UK broadcast body took very seriously. If a brand name appeared in a television show, it would have to be blurred out. If people in a live program started talking about products or brands, the audio would have to be cut. So this was a big leap for the UK to make. But at the same time, UK broadcasters are struggling right now.

And so, the government reversed course and gave in to product placement. According to the BBC, the first paid-for product placement to appear in a UK show will be a Nescafe coffee machine on ITV's This Morning. From then, the floodgates will be opened.

But the way this will be done in the UK will be very restricted, as opposed to the completely free reign US broadcasters enjoy when it comes to product placement. Under the new rules, broadcasters must inform viewers that they are about to watch a show that contains product placement by displaying the letter 'P' for three seconds at the start and end of a programme. This will from now on apply to foreign programmes with product placement as well.

Additionally, product placement will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children's programmes. Product placements for alcohol, tobacco, medicine, weapons or foods high in salt, sugar and fat will not be allowed. And British television producers who wish to use product placement must be able to demonstrate that it is "editorially justified" and not overly conspicuous. The BBC, which is entirely publicly funded through the TV license and does not contain advertising, will continue to ban product placement on its shows.

In my experience people both in Europe and America don't seem to bothered by product placement. I suppose it's the kind of thing you only notice when it's being done poorly, and that in turn makes you lose respect for whatever programme you're watching. But in a post-DVR world where people can skip through commercials, product placement may become the only fool-proof way that advertisers can reach all the viewers of a given programme. There may come a time when we'll forget there was ever a controversy over product placement in television because it will seem so normal. Now that we're in the era of data collection and personalised targeted advertising, product placement may eventually come to be seen as one of the less intrusive forms of advertising

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