BT recently complained to Ofcom about Carphone Warehouse’s TalkTalk sponsor idents for summer 2004’s Big Brother series. The cause of the problem was ‘Free talk on TalkTalk’ but could these five words really be such a problem?
Who: Big Brother and Carphone Warehouse/Talk Talk
When: November 2004
Ofcom published its decision in respect of a complaint by BT over sponsorship credits around the Big Brother series screened in July 2004.
The sponsor in question was Carphone Warehouse and its brand was Talk Talk, the home phone service. The sponsor’s “break bumpers” around the programme included the words “Free talk on Talk Talk” in both text and voice over.
BT’s complaint was that these credits were unacceptable because ‘free talk’ was a reference to a benefit of the sponsor’s service. This, they alleged, breached 11.1.4 of the Code of Programme Sponsorship. This provides that sponsorship credits must be distinct from advertising and as such, should contain no direct invitation to purchase the sponsor’s good or services or include no specific references to the attributes, benefits or prices of those products or services.
Because these were sponsor’s idents, they had not been cleared before broadcasting by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre. In accordance with the usual practice in these cases, it had been the broadcaster, Channel 4, that had checked them before they appeared.
“Talk freely not free talk”
Channel 4 defended its position, stating that the intention of the credits was to reflect the link between the programme and the sponsor. Big Brother was a series primarily about the dynamics of relationships and talk and the essence of Talk Talk as a product was also to encourage people to talk as much and as freely as possible. The theme of the sponsorship campaign was therefore to encourage people to talk freely and was not intended to be a specific reference to the price of the sponsoring service.
When Ofcom investigated the complaint, it established that one of the benefits of the Carphone Warehouse Talk Talk service was free calls to other Talk Talk customers. In this context, therefore Ofcom felt it was unlikely that the ‘free talk’ reference would be seen as a reference to the freedom to talk openly, as opposed to one of the benefits of the product. Accordingly it was “nice try guys” but complaint upheld.
Why this matters:
This case underlines the strict rules under which sponsors of UK TV programmes have to operate.
On the one hand they are allowed to create idents that reflect the link between the programme and the sponsor, but on the other, they are not allowed to make any specific reference to the benefits of the product itself.
As reported recently on marketinglaw, there are moves to liberalise these rules, but this can only occur within the framework of EU sponsorship controls, and since these reflect the code provisions which were the basis of BT’s complaint (Article 17(1)(c) of Directive 89/552/EEC says sponsored programmes must not “encourage the purchase or rental of the products or services of the sponsor or a third party, in particular by making special promotional references to those products or services.”) there seems little hope for any relaxation of this particular rule without changes to the Directive as a result of the current EU-wide review.