Egregious Product Placement? New Regulations in the UK

April 13, 2011
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Trivia fans, take note–the first product placement in the UK featured a Nescafe coffeemaker.  And it aired on February 28, 2011.

Late last year, Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s telecommunications regulatory body, announced something surprising: beginning on February 28, 2011, paid product placement would be permitted on television in the UK.

It may be difficult for those of us familiar with the commercially-mandated American system to imagine broadcasting without product placement.  After all, even early radio featured content sponsored by advertisers, and we’ve since gotten used to seeing the American Idol judges sipping (something) out of their giant Coca-Cola glasses and seeing Jack Bauer drive around in a Ford.  My students love to talk about product placement–in part, I think, because it’s so ubiquitous.  But for the UK, having only recently (compared to the US) allowed commercial broadcasting of any kind, the move toward paid product integrations on television was big news.

Beyond the newsworthiness of the event, however, the restrictions Ofcom developed to govern paid placements provides a fascinating glimpse at the practice itself.  These restrictions include dictating what types of products can be placed, what types of programming are permitted to use product placement, and limits on the way products are used in programming.  Here, I look at one restriction in particular: regulation regarding how products may be presented.   This section of the official guidance notes reveals important issues regarding the logics of product placement, as well as its perceived ills–the UK has made explicit many of the concerns and practices Americans have been implicitly wrestling with for years.

It’s in the “How Product Placements Are Presented” section of the regulations that Ofcom addresses the issue of “egregious” placement.  The guidelines dictate that there must be “editorial justification” for the product placement, which, according to Ofcom, means that “the product must be relevant to what the programme is about. The content of programmes shouldn’t seem to be created or distorted, just to feature the placed products.”  Moreover, the release explains, “Programmes also can’t promote placed products or give them too much prominence. So there shouldn’t be any claims made about how good a placed product is, or so many references to a product that it feels like it is being promoted.”

The fact that Ofcom attempts to mandate the way in which product placement is handled within programming creatively reveals a predominant concern (in the UK and the US) regarding the practice: that advertisements corrupt storytelling.  That writing around advertisements in some way diminishes the creative integrity of television programming.  Indeed, this concern functions as the core of this very column–“egregious” product placement suggests that the ads stand out at the expense of the story being told, that the ads interrupt the writers’ work and the audience’s experience.

(Perhaps it’s too much to hope that some Ofcom executive has been reading my posts and was so turned off by the clunky Toyota placements in Bones that they felt explicit regulation was needed?)

UK broadcasters are, indeed, so tentative about integrating products that the Nescafe placement (for which the company paid £100,000!) was so unobtrusive as to be entirely missed.  The video below shows the segment in question–can you spot the placement?

In the American context, this placement seems almost ludicrous.  One wonders why a company would pay for such a plug, when the machine is barely visible in the background, let alone mentioned by name or used in a productive manner as has become common.  Obviously the notoreity of being “first” was enough to justify this particular instance, but if future placements are expected to be similarly unobtrusive, the utility of the practice has to be questioned.

The UK regulations and the “egregious” instances of product placement in the US, however, set up a false dichotomy, a sense that product placement is an all or nothing prospect.  Either you hide the product in the background of the scene (leaving advertisers unwilling to invest much for the ad) or you draw so much attention to the product that you distract viewers from the stories being told.  Despite the title of my column, and the instances I’ve highlighted here on Antenna, it is my firm belief that product placement does not have to exist on these poles.  Rather, the great majority of placements exist in a happy medium, where advertisers are satisfied that their product has gotten sufficient attention but creative personnel don’t feel like they’ve been used and abused and audiences don’t feel like their programming has been unduly interrupted for an advertisement.

Indeed, I would argue that product placement really must occupy the middle ground in order to succeed.  On either extreme of the spectrum, someone is left dissatisfied–advertisers, storytellers, audiences–to a degree which invalidates the profitability and success of both the ad and the programming.

Although it’s easy to see Ofcom’s strict regulations regarding the nature of product placements as a defensive response to the saturation of the American television landscape with these ads, perhaps regulators, content producers, advertisers and audiences alike need to step back and reevaluate where product placements are taking us (economically and creatively), and whether it’s someplace we want to go.


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2 Responses to “ Egregious Product Placement? New Regulations in the UK ”

  1. Faye Woods on April 14, 2011 at 3:29 AM

    Interesting post from the US perspective Erin (the reading out of a car’s benefits by a tv character is my own personal bugbear in US drama). We also have little informative ads from ofcom running to explain what is happening re product placement and telling us a little P will appear to denote placement in a programme!

    Though Jamie Oliver’s recent 30 minute meals programme blatantly used Sainsbury’s products throughout (down to bagged veg) and Oliver happens to be the ‘face’ of Sainsburys ads. And that wasn’t officially classed as as PP, so go figure!

    Also, I do have to say, “only recently allowing commercial TV”? ITV began in 1955, I wouldn’t really call that recent!

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 14, 2011 at 8:28 AM

      I saw the informative video–it’s wonderful! From the American context, the idea of having to explain product placement just seems so sweet, in some ways!

      Your point about the classification of product placement is a good one, and I had a paragraph about it at one point during the draft stage. It’s hard to know how these rules/restrictions will be policed–is it only when audiences complain?

      And I concede the point on the “recent” nature of commercial programming in the UK. My intent was to highlight the long history of commercialism in American broadcasting compared to the UK. Only a 30 year jumpstart on commercial broadcasting, perhaps, but during formative years, that jumpstart certainly made a big difference, and the UK’s commitment to public broadcasting (even after ITV’s arrival) certainly has created an environment which makes the sanctioning of product placement a noteworthy event.

      (But I absolutely agree that this foundational argument should have been made clearer in the post, and I thank you for the clarification!)