Technically, UK law says money cannot change hands for the appearance of a particular product or brand on television outside paid-for ads and sponsorship. But as the Sunday Times recently revealed, a lot of value changes hands to make brands appear.
Topic: Product placement
Who: BBC, The Sunday Times, Ofcom
When: September 2005
The Sunday Times claims to have uncovered "at least 50 cases" where big name brands have bought favourable exposure in BBC TV programmes by paying specialist agents. The article, published in the 18 September 2005 Sunday Times, alleges companies are paying fees of up to £40,000 for product placements.
Posing as businessmen, undercover journalists from the newspaper found one programme producer willing to show a new alcoholic drink on air in a cookery series in return for free accommodation and travel. The head of props for a BBC drama was also willing to promise that the drink would be featured prominently in bar shots.
Why this matters:
BBC Guidelines prohibit paid-for product placement but do allow limited use of brand names to give a sense of realism.
While the guidelines state that it is permissible "in rare cases" for a producer to accept a product for free and use it in a BBC programme, no guarantee may be given that the product will indeed be featured.
In spite of this, a number of specialist agencies now focus on product placement opportunities and are paid by their clients to lobby programme makers with a view to influencing editorial content and securing brand placement. The Sunday Times article suggests that the practice is now widespread in BBC programming.
The newspaper's revelations come at a time when many believe product placement legislation is reaching a cross-roads. The key European legislation prohibiting product placement in TV programmes (the Television Without Frontiers Directive) is the subject of a formal review. Speaking earlier this month, the EC Director-General with responsibility for media, Viviane Reding, appeared to accept that product placement could in future be permitted but that strict rules governing its use would still be required. One proposal is that placements should be clearly identified at the beginning of programmes.
The UK TV regulator Ofcom appears to support a move towards permissible product placement, but any changes to Ofcom's codes would need to be in line with the Television Without Frontiers Directive.