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Product Placement wins

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 20th September 2009

The culture secretary Ben Bradshaw has recommended that commercial television stations in the UK be allowed to use product placement in their programmes for the first time. This means that rather than waiting for the advert breaks, companies will be able to gatecrash the programmes themselves, and pay for their products to appear in soaps, comedies, TV dramas, talent shows, etc.

Michael Grade, the boss of ITV, has been particularly vociferous in his campaign for allowing product placement, and this is something of a volte-face from the government, who had previously opposed the campaign, fearing that it would blur the boundary between programme and advertisement. However, the decision has been made primarily in response to the fall in advertising revenue for companies such as ITV, although now it's been conceded, it will probably be much harder to revoke, even if the economic downturn ends.

Product placement has always been present on American television, where manufacturers have often been allowed to sponsor an entire evening's entertainment, for example Ford's 1957 extravaganza The Edsel Show. In the UK we've been spared this, other than programmes being "sponsored" by particularly companies (the first being Cadbury's sponsorship of Coronation Street). However, we have always had a taste of product placement via films - if one watches the 2006 film Casino Royale, for example, (just £5 from Amazon.com - amazing value!) we find fairly obvious references to Omega watches, Ford/Jaguar/Land Rover, and most notably Sony; Sony Vaio, Sony-Eriksson, Sony Blu-Ray, Sony digital cameras, etc. While I have no problem with products being featured in the film, many of these felt tacked-on, to the point where they became comical:

Vesper Lynd: MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know... former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches. Rolex?
James Bond: Omega.
Vesper Lynd: Beautiful.

Some scenes in this film almost felt as if they had been written to feature these products, which surely goes against the need to tell a story and what concerns me is that product placement deals will influence editorial judgement. For example, rather than giving Inspector Morse a cool old Jaguar, with the current proposals, he would probably drive around in a shiny new Toyota. One could argue that car manufacturers have always had product placement by giving productions the use of cars for free - Ford were particularly good at this in programmes such as Z-Cars, The Sweeney and The Professionals. However, now the decision on what car Bodie and Doyle drive would probably be down to who wrote the biggest cheque to ITV plc.

Time will tell if allowing product placement is a good or a bad decision - if it's subtle, and helps pay for better-quality programmes on the beleaguered commercial channels then it is to be welcomed, but I have a horrible suspicion that it will become increasingly unsubtle as the years go by and will ultimately reduce, rather than improve quality.

RW



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