Monday, 14 September 2009

UK Product Placement - opening the door to brands

Want your beer flowing in Rovers Return? How about having Jamie Oliver noshing your brand of bangers? Previously money can't buy marketing strategies, until now....

Quite a surprising final story on the BBC late evening news this Saturday. Product placement in UK TV shows will be legalised at some point in the near future. The news represents something of a turnaround for the Government, with Culture Secretary Ben Bradsahw reversing his predecessor Andy Burnham position. Burnham said a year or so ago that lifting the ban raised "very serious concerns" and was "blurring the boundaries between advertising and editorial". This turnaround will bring a level certainty to what is something of a grey area of UK broadcast law.

I say grey area as product placement certainly exists, its just not legitimised. We would send brands product and key messages to props agencies with the hope they would get used in high rating shows. ZenithOptimedia London indeed had tremendous success with a COI 'Flu Jabs' Eastenders campaign in 2006 - not only were the Henry Cooper emblazoned posters we provided clearly seen on screen. But the soaps producers decided to incorporate the Flu Jabs season into the storyline (with Jim Brennan desperate to avoid the needle with Dot egging him on - classic stuff). But no money would change hands and no exposure was guaranteed.

This is all about to change with this policy decision. More will no doubt be announced at the official unveiling on Weds (at the Royal Television Society lecture) but we can hazard a guess at what this new future may hold of us.

Commercial stations and independent producers (the BBC will remain exempt - with the old 'send a prop and pray' model in place) will be able to accept payment in return for guaranteed screen time for brands. No detail on limitations as yet but I am convinced the regulations will be tight. Here in Poland for instance, product placement is sold in packages by broadcasters - usually with a minimum guarantee of 2 x 3 second exposures per episode. What isn't clear is how many brands can be exposed in this way in each show.

The timing of the announcement is interesting for two reasons. Firstly there is the evidence of a 'spoiling tactic' by the government. The Tories have engaged with the advertising/media community to draft various white papers on the future of broadcasting - it was understood that a softening of product placement regulation was one of the areas of interest. Secondly it comes at a time with ITV lobbying heavily for the removal of the CRR (a trading mechanism put in place by OFCOM at the time of the Carlton/Granada merging to avoid clients facing significant hikes in TV ad rates). Relaxation or removal of the CRR is by far a bigger deal for the beleaguered broadcaster. While broadcaster commentators like Peter Bazelgate reckon product placement could be worth up to £125m a year in the UK (based on the US experience of PP bringing in 5-6% of TV revenue).

I think this estimations are ambitious, great for headlines but probably unlikely to be reached for some time. Numerous reasons for this but a key issue will be the timelines that producers work to versus the speed with which clients tend to need to bring products/services to market. For a decent prime time drama, you are probably looking at 6-9 months between filming and airing. This timetable would put off any would be product placers - even a high profile broadcast sponsorship deal can go from deal to air in a matter of weeks and most clients businesses are based around the 2 month advanced booking deadline which UK broadcasters tend to insist on.

However that said, one can easily imagine the big winners here. It will be the shows that have shorter production schedules and offer bigger audiences - namely live talent/reality shows. Its no surprise that this picture of American Idol has been trawled out on all news outlets when this story broke. The deal between American Idol and Coke is reported to be worth $35m per year. Its a huge rating show, its live or 'as live' and I am sure its ad breaks and sponsorship billboards are very well sold, meaning product placement is the only way the broadcaster can maximise revenues in a hit programme. I imagine it'll go the same way in the UK.

In reality, the net benefit of the relaxation in product placement regulation is likely to be worth about £20-30m per year in the UK. A help but not the answer to commercial broadcasting's woes.
Despite UK movie going audiences being quite used to product placement in films, it will be a case of suck it and see on TV. I agree with Robin Wright's assessment on the Guardian today - like everything in advertising, product placement can be done well or badly (you'll see both in every James Bond film "Is that a Rolex", "No, I wear Omega"....and???).

To do it really well we, as the media agency community, need to add to our existing skill sets and learn from experiences in other markets. To ensure the UK does product placement better than anyone else we're looking for natural fit between brand and programme. Shoe-horning in will turn off audiences and only increase the pressure on the TV market.

Here's an example I was shown from Poland on perhaps how not to do it....

Product placement - Telekomunikacja Polska SA
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