Ofcom’s adjudication on the Unilever-funded series “Family Food Fights with Flora” highlights the difficulties brands and broadcasters face in ensuring advertiser-funded programming is Broadcasting Code-compliant, even before a proposed “thematic placement” ban under product placement rules. Nick Johnson reviews the decision.
Who: Unilever, Channel Five, Ofcom
When: November 2010
Law stated as at: 2 December 2010
Ofcom investigated a Channel Five series funded by Unilever for possible breaches of Rule 9.4 (editorial influence) and Rule 9.5 (promotional references) of its Broadcasting Code. Although no viewer complaints had been received, Ofcom was concerned about references in the Family Food Fight with Flora programmes that encouraged the use of low-fat spread as a healthier alternative to butter. For instance, one sequence included the following dialogue:
Narrator: “In fact there is so much butter in their diet, Rachel has had a worrying health scare.”
Contestant: “Four months ago, I had a blood test and it came back that I had raised cholesterol. That really did worry me”
Narrator: “Rachel’s processed pie is loaded with saturated fat known to raise cholesterol in the blood which could be prematurely aging her heart by almost a decade. For a woman, the government recommends a maximum of twenty grams in any one day.”
Narrator: “To help lower Rachel’s cholesterol, Matt doesn’t use any butter”
Narrator: “Matt glazes the filo pastry with a melted sunflower spread and scrunches it on top.”
Matt Tebutt: “In terms of saturated fat, we’re only looking at four grams.”
Narrator: “Four grams per portion?! That’s an eighty per cent reduction in saturated fat! My hero!”
Having reviewed Five's submissions and the contractual documentation relating to the programme's funding, Ofcom concluded that Unilever had not required the inclusion of generic references to its products and that Five had maintained its independence of editorial control over the series.
Nevertheless, Ofcom held that the positive references in the episodes to the health benefits of sunflower spread and other such low-fat products when used in the place of butter and other saturated fats amounted to impermissible promotional generic references contrary to Broadcasting Code Rule 9.5.
Why this matters:
While Ofcom is at pains in its adjudication to stress that "a brand such as Flora could, in principle, sponsor a series about heart health and healthy eating", and while the regulator gave the series a clean bill of health under Rule 9.4 (editorial independence), the line taken here on "promotional references" is unexpectedly tough.
Even though the sponsor's brands were not mentioned in the programme at all (other than in the sponsor credits), the emphasis in the series on the benefits of low-fat spreads over butter was seen by the regulator as amounting to a promotional generic reference to the sponsor. And while that emphasis was recognised by Ofcom as being editorially justified in a healthy eating cookery series, it is not permissible under Rule 9.5 if the show is sponsored by a brand associated with low-fat spreads (whether editorially justified or not).
Note however that Rule 9.5 doesn't just apply to AFP deals: it applies to any programme with a sponsor. This means brands and broadcasters now need to take extra care when entering into broadcast sponsorship deals, so as to ensure nothing in the programme content could be construed as a promotional generic reference to the sponsor. Could particular car brands for instance be deemed inappropriate sponsors for drama series featuring fast driving sequences, demonstrations of safety features or other relevant product characteristics?
Further, if Ofcom's proposed ban on "thematic placement" is implemented in the way suggested in Ofcom's recent consultation document, then it may become impossible for a brand such as Flora to fund a series like this in any circumstances. Watch this space for the new product placement rules, which Ofcom indicated would be published by the end of 2010.