After decades of strict separation between editorial and advertising content, from 28 February 2011 British TV programmes will start to feature product placement. A much needed financial boost for broadcasters, or the end of quality broadcasting as we know it? Nick Johnson explains the new regime.
Topic: Product placement
When: 28 February 2011
Law stated as at: 2 February 2011
On 20 December 2010 the UK's media regulator Ofcom announced that paid-for product placement will be allowed in UK television programmes for the first time from 28 February 2011.
The announcement comes over 3 years after the EC Audiovisual Services Directive first permitted EU member states to allow product placement, and follows numerous consultations and government about-turns. A revised section 9 of Ofcom's Broadcasting Code has been issued to give effect to the new regime.
So where have we ended up? What kind of product placement will we now see in British-produced programming?
The new UK rules remain much more restrictive than the position in the US:
- Product category restrictions: No tobacco, alcohol, gambling, medicines or baby milk. No foods or drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar. No products and services that cannot be advertised on television, such as weapons or escort agencies.
- Genre restrictions: Product placement will be allowed in films (including dramas and documentaries), TV series (including soaps), entertainment shows and sports programmes. But it will be prohibited in all children’s and news programmes and in UK-produced current affairs, consumer affairs and religious programmes.
- Product placement logo: All programmes that include paid-for product placement will have to flag this by showing an on-screen "universal visual logo" for 3 seconds at the start and end of the programme and after each ad break. The design and colour of the logo is expected to be announced by Ofcom in the next few weeks.
- How placements appear: Product placement must not impair broadcasters’ editorial independence and must always be editorially justified. Programmes cannot be created or distorted so that they become vehicles for the purposes of featuring product placement. References to placed products and brands cannot be promotional, and placements must not be given undue prominence in the programme.
Similar rules already apply to video-on-demand content, under the Rules & Guidance of the Association for Television on Demand (ATVOD).
Why this matters:
Of course, British audiences are no strangers to product placement on TV. We've been exposed to it for many years in films and in US import programmes, which always fell outside the Ofcom prohibitions. The new Ofcom regime goes some way in starting to level out the playing field, allowing UK broadcasters and production companies to start accessing product placement revenues that have long been available to their US counterparts.
While we'll all no doubt enjoy playing "spot the placement" for a few weeks, with the Ofcom placement logo a handy signal that the game is about to begin, it's likely that many of the paid placements we'll start to see will be largely unremarkable.
Broadcasters, producers, brands and their agencies won't want them to irritate viewers, and will generally prefer embedded brands to fit naturally into the narrative of the programme.
What's less clear at this stage is how the deal structures for UK placements are going to shake out. Broadcasters say they need to front the deals, as they're on the hook for any Ofcom compliance issues. Many producers see things differently, particularly with broadcast to TV sets increasingly being seen as just one of many routes to market for audio-visual content.
Will a common industry approach and structure evolve?
It's to be hoped as well that advertisers will not seek to exploit placements intentionally as a way to push messages that would not be permitted in advertising. For instance, car ads cannot focus on speed or acceleration other than in the clear context of safety. If we see a stampede of automotive brands piling into gratuitous car chase scenes, this may lead to calls for placements to comply with BCAP Code rules. With the ASA already potentially struggling to cope with its extended remit in the online space as of 1 March 2011, a further extension into editorial/entertainment content could be a stretch too far…