Aviva’s sponsorship of ITV’s successful “Downton Abbey” upstairs/downstairs drama series looked an excellent call until Ofcom received complaints that the breakbumpers buffering the commercial breaks broke the relevant content rules. Nick Johnson reports Ofcom’s reasoning and decision.
Who: Aviva, Ofcom, ITV
When: December 2011
Law stated as at: 10 January 2012
We reported last month on an Ofcom adjudication about Jaguar's sponsorship of TV cricket coverage. This month, we report on similar issues in relation to Aviva's sponsorship of popular ITV drama Downton Abbey.
Aviva Income Protection's sponsorship credits were held to be in breach of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, as they were held to promote a specific benefit of the sponsor's product, amounting to an advertising message.
The credits featured a "mini-drama" involving a character called Gary. Each credit throughout the episode reflected a development in the story of Gary‟s motorbike accident, his recovery, his inability to return to work and his decision to re-train for a new career. As described by Ofcom, one of the sponsorship credits consisted of the following: "Gary and his wife are sitting on the sofa. Gary is reading a document. His wife asks: “What are you doing now?” Gary responds: “It‟s my insurance policy. I think I‟m still covered if I do that course!” His wife asks: “Will you have to wear a uniform?” and Gary laughs. The Aviva logo and the text: “Aviva Income Protection Sponsors Drama Premieres. Reconstruction. Inspired by actual events” appear on yellow strap across the bottom of the screen."
In light of the line “It‟s my insurance policy. I think I‟m still covered if I do that course!” while the character was shown holding a document, Ofcom considered that the credit appeared to refer to a benefit of Aviva's Income Protection policy. The regulator considered the material under Rule 9.22(a) of the Code. This requires that:
“Sponsorship credits broadcast around sponsored programmes must not contain advertising messages or calls to action. Credits must not encourage the purchase or rental of the products or services of the sponsor or a third party. The focus of the credit must be the sponsorship arrangement itself. Such credits may include explicit reference to the sponsor's products, services or trade marks for the sole purpose of helping to identify the sponsor and/or the sponsorship arrangement.”
The broadcaster argued that the primary message of the credit was to inform viewers of the sponsorship relationship between Aviva and the programme, with the creative approach reflecting a thematic link between ITV Drama and the "mini-drama" being played out in the sponsorship credits. It also argued that no detailed description was given of any Aviva product, that "I think I'm still covered" in this context was neither a specific claim nor an advertising message and that in any event the coverage referred to is "in effect universal" in income protection policies so should not be seen as a distinct benefit of Aviva's cover.
Ofcom was not swayed by Sky's arguments. It concluded viewers were likely to understand the credit as promoting a benefit of the sponsor's insurance (ie that if you undertake a training course, you can still receive insurance payments under an Aviva policy). As such it held the credits contained an "advertising message" contrary to the requirements of Rule 9.22(a).
Why this matters:
Under the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive, EU member states are obliged to limit the amount of advertising that broadcasters transmit each hour, and to ensure advertising is kept separate from other parts of the programme service. Because sponsorship credits are treated as separate from advertising and do not count towards advertising minutage, broadcasters are required to ensure that credits do not contain advertising messages.
Sponsors of course want to get maximum return on investment from their broadcast sponsorships. So inevitably there is often pressure to try and use the sponsorship credit to do more than just promote the brand and communicate the sponsorship.
Ofcom's adjudication here makes it clear that the fact a product benefit is generic to the product category – rather than being specific to the sponsor's product – does not prevent a reference to that benefit from being an advertising message.