Ads for the movie Prometheus during an episode of Homeland on Channel 4 asked for, and then broadcast tweets by viewers about the Prometheus clip that had just been aired. Did the treatment of the Tweets misleadingly suggest they were editorial, not paid for content? Tom Harding reports the Ofcom verdict.
Topic: Social media
Who: Ofcom and Channel 4
When: November, 2012
Law stated as at: December 2012
As readers of marketinglaw.co.uk will no doubt be aware, real time viewer interaction is becoming an increasingly used broadcaster (let's be honest, who hasn’t 'Tapped to Clap' along with the X-Factor?). As part of this trend, displaying real-time Tweets is also increasing in popularity.
'Prometheus' is, according to Wikipedia, 'a science fiction film … that centers on the crew of the spaceship Prometheus as they follow a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures. The film was heavily promoted on release, most of which we understand was uncontroversial, but it was in relation to an interactive social media based-ad on Channel 4 ad that the issues arose.
Don't (Ad) Break the Rules
During the breaks of an episode of Homeland, Channel 4 transmitted two Prometheus ads. The first began with a full-screen Channel 4 logo, and the broadcaster's continuity announcer saying: 'Now on Channel 4 … we bring you a world exclusive.
Here is the new trailer of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and we'd love to know what you think. Send your tweets to #areyouseeingthis and you might see them on screen in the next break …'. The Prometheus trailer was then shown, and following this a black screen including the Channel 4 logo and the text #areyouseeingthis in typical Channel 4 typeface appeared, accompanied by further words from the continuity announcer.
In the next ad break, various viewer (all positive) Tweets were displayed relating to the trailer, such as "Prometheus is shaping up to be the best film of the year" and "Awesome cast, fantastic director, can't wait". These were followed by the continuity announcer saying "Ridley Scott is back to the genre he defined and we are massively excited about it … Book your tickets now".
Ofcom subsequently received a complaint that the ad "totally confuses the viewer about whether they are watching an impartial continuity announcement or a paid advertisement."
Under Rule 11 of Ofcom's Code of Scheduling of Television Advertising ("COSTA"), "Broadcasters must ensure that television advertising and teleshopping is readily recognisable and distinguishable from editorial content and kept distinct from other parts of the programme service. This shall be done by optical (including spatial) means; acoustic signals may also be used as well." Ofcom therefore asked Channel 4 for its comments on how they thought the Prometheus material complied with the rule.
Channel 4 responded with several points. Firstly, it pointed out that the ads had been cleared in advance by Clearcast (as Rule 2.1 of the BCAP Code, mirroring COSTA, states that 'Advertisements must be obviously distinguishable from editorial content …' and also therefore applies). A Clearcast representative had even approved all Tweets shown on screen. In addition, Channel 4 advanced further arguments in its defence, including that:
- they had included a black screen broadcast immediately after the end of Homeland. followed by a Channel 4 ident to create no doubt that it was the end of the programme and start of an ad break;
- the ad had a completely different tone, took and feel to the channel ident, and had the same style and tone of other Channel 4 advertising premiers, in order to distinguish it from editorial content;
- Channel 4 felt the continuity announcers tone and wording, including talking about a 'new trailer' and the 'next break' again made it clear it was not editorial content; and
- the second ad also followed the same principles.
In addition, Channel 4 referenced the amendment to the 2010 BCAP Code where the previous requirement that 'in ambiguous cases, advertisements must be identified as such on screen' had been removed from the Code. It questioned that, since this amendment, it was unclear what exactly is required to be done in these circumstances. In view of this, since the Prometheus promotion, Channel 4 had subsequently put in place its own procedure to prevent anything similar happening, including featuring "This is a Channel 4 advertising premiere" (or similar) wording at the start of such promotions.
Ofcom found that it was "unlikely" viewers would doubt that Homeland had been interrupted for a break, but the presentation of the Prometheus material itself 'risked confusing viewers in respect of its status'. This was in part due to the fact that, although the ad contained some elements likely to be recognisable as advertising, the ad equally contained other elements usually associated with editorial content, for example the Channel 4 logo, the continuity announcers' voice, the suggested ownership and endorsement of the material by Channel 4 and the 'call to action' for viewers to submit their views to Channel 4. Ofcom therefore held the ad to be 'ambiguous' and it was 'concerned' about the degree to which it was recognisable as advertising.
However, in light of the steps Channel 4 had taken since the broadcast no further action was taken and the matter was deemed resolved.
Why this matters:
Broadcasters are increasingly taking a converged approach to content and viewer interaction across a range of mediums. Where this is linked to advertising material however, the investigation highlights the need for clarity in what is being presented, and for transparency to be paramount in all cases.