Product placement is an advertising technique whereby advertisers pay to have their products included and promoted in television programmes. Editorial staff, scriptwriters and producers amend scripts and plots so as to feature and promote certain products. Words are put into the mouths of TV characters to advertise brands. Currently, in the UK, only unpaid 'prop' supply is permitted and commercial references are subject to Ofcom rules against 'undue prominence'. The CPBF, together with viewers' organisations and consumer bodies, opposes the introduction of paid placement. Product placement would allow programme agendas to be distorted for commercial purposes and would give advertisers unhealthy control over decisions about what content is made, shown and commissioned.
Myth: Product placement will provide greater realism for viewers
We are told product placement will allow greater 'realism' but this misleads the public. What advertisers want, and will pay for, is marketing within programmes.
Brands have not been banned; what is forbidden is paying for commercial plugs and giving 'undue prominence' to specific goods and services in UK-produced TV. We do not oppose unpaid prop placement; accessories given for free are a common practice and acceptable provided products are not given 'undue prominence'. There is a dictinction between such production aids and product placement of an advertising nature, paid by a third party, which should be banned.
Myth: product placement can coexist with editorial independence
Once paid placement is allowed, commercial pressures will make the 'undue prominence' rule unworkable. At present, the ban on product placement and the undue prominence rules work hand-in hand in making any breach visible. If PP is allowed, it will not be posible to maintain 'undue prominence' in anything like its current form. No doubt any UK rules will specify that PP must not interfere with 'editorial integrity'. How will this be identified and regulated in future if PP is permitted?
We don't believe that permitting PP would bring British TV swiftly to the levels of embedded advertising found on American network and cable TV. But we believe that removing the two rules that prevent PP would remove the only effective regulatory safeguards. From that point the same commercial pressures here would be most likely tolead to increasing product placement, towards the patterns established in the United States. There product placement has become more intensive and more intrusive. According to Nielsen Media Research, product placement occurrences on network TV prime time rose to 22,046 in the first three quarters of 2007. On cable TV, for the same period Nielson found 136,078 occurrences. Product placements with a combined visual and audio reference on US network television went up by 17% in 2006 to 4,608, and by 13% to 5,190 in 2007. There were 118,000 individual product placements across 11 top US channels in first three months of 2008 alone.
According to David Young, Director of the Writers Guild of America West, 'Product integration goes far beyond the long-standing practice of using real commercial products as props. It forces professional television writers to disguise commercials as story lines and destroys the line between advertising and editorial content'. In the first quarter of 2008, TNS Media Intelligence found that brand appearances, in the form of product placement and integration, averaged 12 minutes and eight seconds per hour in primetime network television, all in addition to 14 minutes of regular commercial breaks. In 2007, American Idol featured 4,349 product placements, topping the list of network TV programmes with product integration. Coca-Cola's deal with American Idol involved logo-ed cups in front of the three judges, the traditional green room renamed 'Coca-Cola Red Room', specially taped segments labelled 'Coca-Cola Moments', as well as plugs by the show's hosts. Fox's talent show American Idol is produced by FreemantleMedia North America, a subsidiary of Freemantle Media Ltd UK responsible for more than 500 hours of programming in the UK last year. Ofcom has already stated that episodes of American Idol that aired on ITV 2 breached UK rules on undue prominence despite having been re-edited for transmission in the UK.
Maintaining the separation of advertising and content not only protects against stealth advertising, it protects editorial independence and the artistic and creative integrity of programmes. The ban on product placement does not just protect against how brands are featured in particular programmes – it protects how decisions are made across broadcasting as a whole, about how stories are told and even what stories are told.
Announcing product placement in end credits or at the start of programmes will not work. Even for those watching 'linear' programming, zapping between channels is the norm, so it is likely that the information will not be seen. For the growing number of households with DVRs the opportunities to bypass such notices only increases. Yet, the issue of product placement is only partly about disclosure. It is about the impact of integrating commercial messages and interests into the very fabric of programmes and programme decision-making. Even if a consumer watches the credits, the announcement certainly won’t reveal how the plot and dialogue of a TV programme have been adapted to fit marketers objectives.
Will children be protected from product placement?
Maintaining a ban on PP in children's programmes alone will not be sufficient to serve the intended purpose. According to the OFCOM children spend 71% of their TV viewing time outside of children's airtime. Product placement would, for example, be allowed in reality TV shows, such as The X-Factor, that are extremely popular amongst young viewers.
Advertising rules and product placement
Permitting PP would fatally undermine broadcast advertising rules. All the efforts in the advertising code to prevent brand associations which may be damaging in various ways (cars and speed, alcohol or cigarette and sexual allure, HFSS food promotion to children) are much less enforceable in programme content. In fact, promoters would have incentives to evade advertising restrictions, broadcasters and producers would have incentives to attract pp, and advertising rules would be inconsistently applied and so undermined. Research by the US Institute of Medicine, for instance, found that companies promoting unhealthy food and drink were increasingly targeting children through product placement.
The economic case
It is true that many businesses will make money if product placement is permitted but it is not clear that the net benefit will be significantly higher investment in UK programmes. The money paid for product placement often ends up in third party hands, for example advertising agencies or producers. As Channel Four has argued product placement could largely cannibalise existing sponsorship and spot advertising income. Sponsors may perceive a programme to have less value if it features product placement from other companies. The benefit for viewers had not been adequately demonstrated and must be based on both economic and cultural criteria, since what matters is the quality and range of programmes produced and financed. The economic case does not outweigh the damage to the integrity and credibility of British television programmes resulting from allowing paid placement. We therefore agree with the Government’s position, as stated in March 2009, that 'no conclusive evidence has been put forward that the economic benefit of introducing product placement is sufficient to outweigh the detrimental impact it would have on the quality and standards of British television and viewers' trust in it'.
Does the public want product placement?
Even Ofcom’s commissioned research in 2004, which was small-scale and flawed, revealed that 90 per cent of those questioned were either wary or strongly disapproved of allowing more prominent and more frequent placements. A recent survey carried out by Redshift Research reported that a majority of UK adults favoured PP. Yet some some 85% of those surveyed said that PP would not necessarily bring any benefits to the actual programming other than a revenue boost for programme makers, while 66% said that they didn't believe that PP would make TVprogrammes more realistic. There is an urgent need for more thorough research into viewers attitudes including 'citizens juries' and other deliberative methods of opinion research.
Following the United States?
The UK government is considering abandoning the principle of separation of editorial and advertising, just as growing disquiet in the United States about PP is prompting efforts to move in the opposite direction. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules require that all commercial messages must be clearly disclosed to TV viewers. In practice, however, this means that corporate sponsors are mentioned in small type during fast moving end credits. Former FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called for tighter rules and more prominent on-air disclosure while FCC Chairman Kevin Martin acknowledged: 'growing concern that our sponsorship identification rules fall short of their ultimate goal: to ensure that the public is able to identify both the commercial nature of the programming as well as its source. I believe it is important for consumers to know when someone is trying to sell them something'. The FCC is considering strengthening rules that require networks to disclose to viewers when products have been integrated into programming.
Product integration and new media
Product placement should not be permitted in non-linear as well as linear AV services. For acquired programmes that contain product placement there should be a mandatory notification given to viewers. In addition, there should be a prohibition on any product placement being added to acquired VOD content.
We concur with BEUC, the European Consumers' Organisation, representing 40 independent national consumer organisations from across Europe, in calling for a total ban on product placement: 'The principle of separation is one of the most important rules in media: the content of a show must be clearly separated from advertising. People must be able to know if they are watching information, entertainment, or if they are watching advertisement. Allowing product placement will make this principle meaningless, and will damage the integrity, credibility and quality of TV programmes' (BEUC 2006).
So, we call for:
o No paid product placement
o Strict separation between programmes and advertising
o Maintenance of the undue prominence rules