Viewers of the Pepsi Cola-funded ‘Pepsi Max World Challenge’ Channel 4 series queried whether the amount of Pepsi branding on view breached Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code. But surely series funders can get at least some brand bang for their buck?
Topic: Branded content
Who: Pepsi, Ofcom, Channel 4
When: October 2006 (decision in Oct on programmes broadcast April/May)
Ofcom has upheld viewer complaints about the level of Pepsi branding featured in the Pepsi Max World Challenge TV series. The series was funded by Pepsi as an 'advertiser funded programme' and was shown in the UK on Channel 4 in April and May 2006. It followed 12 pairs of amateur footballers from around the world as they competed in a series of challenges. The shows covered each challenge and also featured behind-the-scenes footage.
Pepsi branding and references within the programme included:
• the Pepsi globe logo in the title sequence, on the players' kit and on the footballs used in the challenges;
• a visit by the competitors to a London ad agency who were credited with producing a recent Pepsi TV ad (one of the 'challenges' was to design a poster advertisement); and
• footage of the Pepsi TV ad mentioned above.
The programme also featured a number of professional footballers, all of whom were under contract to Pepsi.
Ofcom held that "the degree and apparent deliberate placing of sponsor branded content within the series was in breach of the [Ofcom Broadcasting] Code".
Why this matters
Before Ofcom came along, the old ITC Sponsorship Code had a specific section about coverage of sponsored events. Now, however, Ofcom's streamlined Broadcasting Code has no specific language about coverage of events. This issue is dealt with under the general principles in Rules 9.5 and 9.6:
– 9.5 A sponsor must not influence the content and/or scheduling of a programme in such a way as to impair the responsibility and editorial independence of the broadcaster.
– 9.6 There must be no promotional reference to the sponsor, its name, trademark, image, activities, services or products and no promotional generic references. The sponsor must also not have any other direct or indirect interest in the editorial content of the sponsored programme. Non-promotional references are permitted only where they are editorially justified and incidental.
It appears that Channel 4 and Pepsi had gone to some lengths to try to ensure compliance with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Certainly the version of the programme broadcast in the UK was edited to as to contain considerably less branding than versions shown in other countries. And we are led to understand that it was only because of Channel 4's intervention that the venues for the Pepsi Max World Challenge were shown unbranded in the programmes.
Nevertheless, Ofcom's view was that the programmes went beyond simply covering an event – they also included behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with professional football players and footage of Pepsi's ad campaign being filmed. Pepsi branding appeared at various stages thoughout these pieces of extra 'non-event' footage. Ofcom's opinion was that the level of Pepsi branding accordingly went beyond 'that which would naturally result from broadcasting coverage of an event' and that, because Pepsi had funded the series, this branding 'appeared to be deliberately placed and not incidental'.
The decision raises a couple of important practical difficulties for brands involved in event projects that involve an element of TV coverage.
First, they need to try and establish a yardstick for what is a normal and natural level of brand inclusion in broadcast coverage of a sponsored or brand-funded event. There are a number of brand-spotting technologies that could probably assist with this exercise, but it is unclear whether a strictly quantitative numerical approach should be taken here, or indeed how much importance should be attached to the presence or absence of other brands in the same programme.
The second difficulty is more tricky and it is not yet clear whether there is any realistic way to solve the problem. The issue is that Ofcom's approach suggests that, where any TV coverage funded by a brand includes references to that brand, the reference will inevitably be deliberate, or at the very least that there will be a strong presumption of deliberateness. It appears that Ofcom's view is that a deliberate reference can never be 'incidental'.
If brand references are going to be viewed as inevitably deliberate, then this genre of advertiser-funded coverage of the advertiser's own event may now be doomed to extinction in the UK. If on the other hand we are just dealing with a strong presumption, the challenge will be to put in place contractual and other structures that could help to rebut that presumption and establish that any branding included is as incidental as any that would be included in a programme that is not advertiser-funded.