It’s been a few months later than it should, but it looks like UK television will finally get the nod for product placement. There’s still a while to go yet before it finally gets approval, but if it does finally happen, it’ll be a long-needed change to the rules.
When then culture secretary Andy Burnham said there were “serious concerns” about product placement, he was doing the British public a disservice. It’s not as if product placement is a new concept that audiences may find it hard to understand.
And, to me, a good indication of how well something is understood is if the audience can understand a simple joke around it, and judging by the amount of films with product placement related jokes in, they understand it pretty well.
Back in 1992, Mike Myers inserted a wonderfully simple – and still very funny – product placement gag into Wayne’s World.
Without wanting to analyze the joke to death, the product placement joke worked on several levels and required a degree of understanding from the audience. Myers has a good grasp of product placement jokes, especially around Starbucks in the Austin Powers movies.
Obviously the entertainment industry isn’t likely to bite the hand that feeds it, but there have been other examples, heading way back. The Truman Show has Truman’s wife desperately trying to shoehorn a product placement into a domestic argument, while Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 makes its own point about product placement by prominently featuring a raft of hyper-real fictional products. Latterly, the Orange adverts have also got in on the fun.
But, you may say, these are films and not TV. True, but then audiences have been watching films full of product placement for years now and, to date, nobody’s seen a significant breakdown in society.
Take the James Bond franchise. A new Bond film, an event in itself, will typically have around 20 brand partners with products in the film. Die Another Day raked in somewhere around $100m through placement. Yet, despite the odd clunky moment (“Is that a Rolex?” “Omega”) the films are often none the worse for being littered with brands; fitting given the style and endless brand namechecking in Fleming’s books.
Viewers are also familiar with US TV and, even though imports are censored for placement where possible (think blurred out tumblers on American Idol), viewers are savvy enough to know when they’re being marketed to. The ham-fisted attempt at censorship just draws more attention to the placement.
Then there’s the added level of realism that product placement brings. We use brands on a daily basis. Some have even entered our lexicon. Yet characters still head into a pub and ask for a pint of beer, or use non-branded or fictional products to a frustrating level (although, in a weird full circle, so fictional products become so successful they cross the line into real life).
I take the point about exchange quality for more adverts. I take the point we’re bombarded with adverts on a daily basis elsewhere, and can do without it ruining our favourite TV programmes. I especially take the point that product placement shouldn’t be inserted into children’s programmes, and the government if right to keep this as an exception.
But there are balances that need to be struck. If we want commercial broadcasting to keep producing high quality dramas, original comedies, or watercooler-worthy entertainment shows, we have to accept they need to be funded somehow, which means advertising.
It’s never been easier to skip through adverts and, like adverts in print newspapers, you can’t be sure anybody’s actually watching – a nation can quite easily use an ad break for a mass cuppa or loo break.
So that makes product placement a lot more attractive to a brand, and easier to sell for the broadcaster. Does a company want a 30 second spot that some people may see or a placement in the programme that everybody will see.
At a time when commercial broadcasting is in need of a cash boost, it has made no sense to continue to ban product placement. It won’t be the panacea to all woes, but it will help.
And, for once, I agree with Steve Hewlett when he says that badly-done product placement will see viewers turning off.
Sure, there will be some shows that take the money and produce an unwatchable advert, just as cinema has produced some clunkers where brands take centre-stage – Daredevil and Castaway are two that spring to mind.
But there’s no reason why the two can’t co-exist and produce something that everybody is happy with. Proof can be found in Shane Meadows’ Somers Town, originally intended to be a short film funded by Eurostar, but one that ended up turning into a rather delightful feature film.
The two can co-exist and we, as audiences, are mature enough to understand when we’re being sold something, without the need to be told we’re being sold a product (a plan to come out of government, which was, frankly, patronising).
By all means have a framework or code of conduct (and I’d support this idea), but in this day and age, there’s no good reason why our favourite TV stars can’t refresh themselves with a Bud after a long day’s work, before doing the weekly shop at Sainsbury’s before curling up on the sofa with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.
Ok, so that may sound like a lot of brands just in one sentence, but think how, well, ordinary that is. If I told you that’s how I spent my evening, you wouldn’t bat and eyelid, and nor should we when our fictional counterparts do the same.
[Disclosure: I work for ITV in a communities/PR capacity, but these views are entirely my own. Plus, my university dissertation, many moons ago, was on the subject of product placement, so it's a subject I've always retained an interest in, and would do regardless of where I worked.]