Wake up and smell the coffee – product placement is here

Brian Viner sees history being made on 'This Morning' – but in a very British way

An historic day for British television yesterday passed with a disappointing lack of hullabaloo.

It was the privilege of ITV1's This Morning to feature the inaugural paid-for product placement, a Dolce Gusto coffee machine, positioned with a kind of conspicuous inconspicuousness behind presenters Phillip Schofield and Ruth Langsford on a worktop in the programme's kitchen.

For those of us who weren't so much as a granule in the coffee jar of life at 8.12pm on 22 September 1955, the precise moment at which SR toothpaste became the first product to be advertised on commercial television ("brush up and down and round the gums"), 28 February 2011 offered some consolation; the first opportunity to see why Nescafé reportedly paid around £100,000 for its apparatus to form part of the background of This Morning's set for the next three months.

It was able to do so following a relaxation of the rules governing TV advertising, announced in December by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

The last day of February was chosen as the start of a new commercial era, interpreted by some doom-mongers as the beginning of a slippery slope towards the rampant product placement routinely seen across the Atlantic, where a certain soft drinks company, for example, has paid handsomely to have its brands ostentatiously glugged on American Idol by Simon Cowell, a man whose appetite for success and fame, gargantuan though it might be, seems to be exceeded by his thirst for Coca-Cola.

Still, if yesterday heralded a cynical new world in which Ken Barlow ends up sipping halves of Newcastle Brown Ale in the Rovers Return, and ITN's Mark Austin ascribes his autocue slip-ups to having not quite found time to get to Specsavers, then it happened with proper British discretion and understatement.

Even without knowing in advance about the historic Dolce Gusto coffee machine, it was particularly easy to spot on This Morning, but Schofield and Langsford studiously ignored it as they watched the show's chef Phil Vickery cook up a storm in the studio kitchen – just as they were obliged to by Ofcom regulations. The rules also dictate that product placement must be editorially justified, so a coffee machine is permitted in a kitchen, while talking Russian meerkats or the new Audi Quattro are not. Foods high in salt, fat or sugar are on a list of proscribed items, along with all alcoholic drinks. And children's and news programmes are deemed to occupy a higher ethical plane, beyond the reach, at least for now, of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Robinson's Barley Water and everyone else – even a national newspaper renowned for its editorial independence.

Despite those restraints, however, advertising industry insiders have predicted product placement will one day be worth upwards of £50m to ITV alone. And negotiations are already under way with the makers of drama programmes, so even if we don't see Ken Barlow forsaking his beloved yet fictional Newton & Ridley, we might yet see the old boy using a Stannah stair-lift. Of course, it could be argued that that there has always been product placement on British television, that The Sweeney subtly promoted the roadholding qualities of the Ford Granada years ago, just as Bergerac did wonders for the island of Jersey. But now it's moved above the counter. And it all started yesterday morning with an unmade mug of Nescafé.

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