Product placement to the rescue of broadcasters

Easing of advertising rules could be worth £100m a year to ailing television industry
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The Independent Online

In the glamorous world of Hollywood, James Bond famously traded his Aston Martin for a BMW when the price was right. Now, in the somewhat seedier surrounds of Coronation Street, the Rovers Return may soon become a Weatherspoons.

A ban on product placement which has kept brand names off the small screen for almost half a century is to be lifted, the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, will announce on Wednesday. Manufacturers will now get the chance to pay for their wares to form part of the plot or background in televisions shows – as they can already do in films.

It will mean the corner shop in Coronation Street will be allowed to turn the tins on its shelves around so that viewers can see how many varieties of Heinz are stocked while the pub could sell Smiths, IPA or Boddingtons rather than a pint of best.

Mr Bradshaw plans to announce the end of the ban in a speech to the Royal Television Society and his willingness to lift it has been driven in part by a desire to help commercial broadcasters which have been hard hit by the loss of advertising during the recession.

He will outline his support for product placement but is unlikely to announce a straight lifting of the ban. The issue is expected to be put out to public consultation when regulatory details, such as who takes responsibility for overseeing placements, will be put forward.

Bans on placements are expected to remain in force in children's programmes and a "productshed" is likely to be introduced to ensure certain goods, such as condoms, remain out of sight until after 9pm, much like the watershed for bad language and sexual content.

Product placement is common in programmes made in the US and has been allowed elsewhere in the EU for two years. Britain is now part of a small minority in retaining the ban.

The practice was banned in Britain in the 1960s after concerns were raised about "admag" programmes, notably Jim's Inn in which Jimmy and Maggie Hanley appeared as a couple running a country pub where customers discussed the merits of different products.

ITV has championed the lifting of the ban which it said would be "warmly welcomed by the commercial broadcasting industry and advertisers alike". It has been suggested that it will earn up to £100m a year for broadcasters, though other analysts suspected the real level of earnings would be somewhat lower. ITV estimates it to be worth £25m.

Channel 4, however, is less convinced that product placement should be allowed, especially once the inevitable red tape introduced to ensure compliance with a host of conditions was taken into account.

Deeper concerns were raised by Richard Lindley, the chairman of the broadcast watchdog Voice of the Listener & Viewer, who condemned product placement as a misleading blurring of reality that will destroy trust in broadcasters. Mr Lindley described product placement as similar to subliminal advertising because viewers are not necessarily aware of the message being broadcast to them. "It really does risk losing the trust of the viewer and contaminating programmes because you never quite know what is happening," he said. "You don't know whether the programme makers are in control or the marketing director. Our issue is this is near to surreptitious advertising."

The watchdog organisation was astonished that Mr Bradshaw is ready to overturn the ban just a few months after Andrew Burnham, his predecessor at the Department for Culture Media and Sport, announced the ban would stay. He took the view that to allow it would destroy viewer trust in television broadcasting which was already at low ebb after the telephone voting scandals.