Product placement now a hot issue for TV industry


Payment for displaying products in TV shows is not allowed in Ireland, but a UK change would make it difficult to police, writes RICHARD GILLIS

PATRIC VERONNE is recalling his days as a writer on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, during the so-called golden age of American television: “Johnny would come out in front of the curtain and do five minutes of funny, topical stuff talking about the week’s events and warm up the crowd,” says Veronne, who went on to write for The Simpsons among other hit shows, and is now head of the Writers’ Guild of America. “Then he went to his desk and before the first guest came out he would turn to the camera and present that week’s sponsor – it could be a beer company or detergent – and do his salesman bit.”

This part of the show was written not by Veronne or his writer colleagues but by an advertising copywriter, paid separately by the producers. “There was a definite firewall between the two and, most importantly, the audience were very clear that they were being sold to in that part of the programme.”

That line between entertainment and advertising is, 30 or more years later, still a burning issue for programme- and policy-makers and Veronne’s anecdote has a new relevance. This is due to a U-turn by the British government in its attitude to product placement, which is set to allow independent broadcasters to take payments for displaying commercial products during shows.

New UK culture secretary Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC reporter, announced a three-month consultation on the changes in a speech to the Royal Television Society. This, despite his predecessor as minister, Andy Burnham, saying in March this year that “serious concerns” remained about product placement due to its potential to jeopardise programme-makers’ editorial independence.

Bradshaw is thought to be responding to extensive lobbying by ITV, the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster, which has seen revenue from traditional advertising fall dramatically due to the recession and the migration of marketing spend from TV to the internet.

Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, the UK’s broadcast regulator, said he was “comfortable with liberalisation” back in March and so disagreed with the original position: “Do I believe that there could be a role for product placement in enhancing commercial revenue without significant viewer detriment if handled well and appropriately? Yes I do.”

The Broadcast Council of Ireland (BCI) is responsible for regulating Irish television, and a spokesman pointed out that the use of product placement here was not permitted under its General Advertising Code. However, the British government’s actions meant it was an issue for Irish broadcasters, advertisers and viewers, given the level of imported programming from the UK.

The regulator is concerned that issues of transparency and undue prominence of brands will become more difficult to control, and admitted that the power of the BCI to sanction offenders was very limited. A recent case involving The Apprentice on TV3 last year highlighted how these things might work.

One of the challenges for contestants was to sell cars at the Bill Cullen Motor Company, an advertising opportunity for which Bill Cullen’s group paid a large fee. MarketMatch, a marketing company, e-mailed public relations firms the week before shooting for the series began, asking them to sponsor prizes at the end of each episode. It said: “€5,000 includes the filming of contestants using the prize, an introduction by the host Bill Cullen and a credit in the closing roller.”

Unlike Europe, placement has been legitimate in America for many years, making up 5 per cent of ad revenue, with ratings agency Nielsen suggesting there were 204,919 instances of product placement on cable and broadcast networks between January and June 2009. The concern for viewers and regulators is, as Veronne suggests, that the commercial opportunity to sell placements will steamroller editorial decision-making.

For as long as television has existed, he says, it has survived as a medium based on advertiser support and sponsorship.Placement breaks that line, which is why it remains controversial. However, Veronne’s experience from US television suggests that placement is just the start. “It is necessary to distinguish between traditional product placement and product integration,” he says.

“Product placement is the use of real commercial products as props on a TV show to add authenticity. Product integration takes product placement to a new level by accepting payment to weave commercial products into the storylines, character arcs and even jokes in a TV show. It involves the incorporation of products into the storytelling, characters and dialogue of the programming itself.

“It is one thing to have a certain brand of bottled water on the kitchen table as the sitcom family talks about junior’s special problem this week,” says Veronne. “It is something altogether different to make the writers write and the actors act scripted lines that extol the crisp, refreshing goodness of that water and to convince the wacky next door neighbour, who happens to be a professional water salesman in this episode, to stock and sell the product. That’s not entertainment. That’s integration.

“This has become an issue of artistic integrity. Like most writers, I don’t use lavender-scented body wash with lanolin, and I don’t want to write it into a script to help sell it. Yet TV networks are forcing writers to incorporate cars, power tools, potato chips, soda and body wash into scripts.

“Similarly, actors on these shows have become pitchmen for these products, whether they want to be publicly associated with them, whether they’ve been paid for such a commercial endorsement and whether they have conflicting relationships with competing brands. Integrating commercials into shows has created a form of stealth advertising, fooling the viewer into thinking they are not watching an ad.”

The latest estimates suggest we receive on average 3,000 brand communications messages a day, leading a number of marketing analysts to say that placement merely adds to the noise already out there.

Viewers have become adept at shielding themselves from unwanted marketing messages, psychologically and through technology like Sky Plus and Tivo. “There is a limit to audience willingness to be ‘sold to’ and that limit has been reached and breached against their will,” says Veronne. “This supposedly all started because viewers are trying to speed through the commercials.”

The proliferation of marketing channels will make this situation more acute. In the UK the Royal Mail recorded that over 5,000 million pieces of direct mail were sent out unsolicited to a population of 60 million people. In the US, of the estimated nine billion e-mails sent every day, around 90 per cent are spam, or junk e-mails. Other forms of communication are equally prone to unwanted marketing intrusion. Don’t Call Me, a phone-blocking service aimed at preventing telesales intrusion started in the US. It attracted 23 million people in its first two weeks of business, rising to 50 million in the first two months.

By erecting barriers between themselves and the corporate community, consumers are gaining a greater element of control over who or what they allow into their lives, in terms of marketing messages.

Product placement is designed to bypass such defences, making the brands impossible to miss. Veronne and his fellow writers are the arbiters of what goes in the script and as a result have become the target for the PR industry. “In practical terms, PRs may need to start adding programme writers to our traditional journalist targets,” said agent Scott Clark in the trade journal PR Week.

The writing life just got less lonely.