Paying for branded products to be used on screen is big business in the United States, but banned here. Yet British advertisers are waking up to the opportunities offered by supplying free products and services that production companies' budgets would not stretch to.
'Product placement' is a misnomer, say companies working in the business. While providing products to producers or broadcasters in exchange for money is banned by the Independent Television Commission and the BBC Charter, supplying products at no cost to the production team, ultimately saving cash for the broadcaster, is not in breach of any code.
What better product endorsement could there be than for viewers to see a familiar television character using a branded product in prime time? And for the beleaguered producer struggling to make ends meet, what better way of adding realism to a production than by using the latest fast car or computer?
BT, Toyota, Honda and ICL are among companies that have appointed product placement specialists to act on their behalf. Others, including AEG and Rank Xerox, have asked their advertising agencies to develop placements. Companies see this as a way of extending marketing budgets, getting their products seen in use in 'real' environments and, if they are lucky, used by a star.
Those companies using product placement companies favour retaining them for at least a year at an agreed fee. Payment often takes into account results - although guarantees are impossible - and can amount to tens of thousands of pounds over a year. In a business that operates close to the margins of propriety, exact figures are kept a close secret.
Critics describe product placement as merely 'cheap advertising'. Advertising agencies describe it as a 'new media opportunity'.
'It is subtle inference rather than direct advertising,' explains Richard Worrall, head of broadcast sponsorship at Media Horizons, a division of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam. 'The really good examples are visible from the marketing perspective, but when seen by the viewers the message is absorbed subliminally.'
But such subtlety concerns critics who regard product placement as insidious. While Beamish stout has become associated with Inspector Morse through its TV sponsorship, the association is commercial and labelled as such. Product placement is less clearly defined, which has caused some programme makers to worry about the possibility of editorial interference.
Product placement companies deny that this could happen. 'The appeal to the client is the chance to get their product on to television,' says Diana Happ, director of Prop Buying Services, whose clients include Mars, Courage, Apricot computers and Volvo. 'But you can't guarantee this - the product may not be in the shot or even in the final cut. By pure law of averages it will happen enough to satisfy the client.'
Even so, Brookside, Challenge Anneka, One Foot in the Grave (Ariel), EastEnders (Golden Wonder and Nintendo) and, most recently, Gamesmaster and The Big Breakfast (Sega) are among programmes criticised in press reports or in complaints to the ITC for giving undue prominence to certain products and services. The ITC does not comment on individual complaints.
Steve Read, director of 1st Place Product Props, a placement company, prefers the term 'product props' instead of 'product placement'.
'As long as we work within the ITC code it's a totally legitimate business,' he maintains. 'Branded products are part of our everyday life. If you took all the brands out of TV programmes they would look like Dixon of Dock Green.'
1st Place's clients include Nissan, ICL and Guinness. The company says it has worked on programmes including Coronation Street, Body and Soul, Riders and Trainer. Product placement helps producers to make better programmes and complements manufacturers' marketing activities, Mr Read maintains. Companies who have tried product placement agree.
IBM recently provided personal computer equipment for series including Rides and Westbeach. 'Getting IBM kit on film and television raises background awareness of IBM products and allows them to be seen used in different ways and environments,' says Steve Walker, marketing programmes manager for IBM UK.
Product placement is 'an investment in general consciousness-raising', Mr Walker believes. But it is not without risk. Products can suffer from association with a negative plot twist. IBM would not want its PCs associated with computer fraud, for example. One way to avoid this is to contract a product placement company, which can often preview scripts, or at least plot synopses, before products are provided.
One recent estimate suggests that product placement is worth up to pounds 100m a year towards production budgets. Yet this is not openly welcomed by producers. The problem is that broadcasters have outlawed product placement while in effect encouraging it by squeezing budgets. 'Producers don't set out to break the rules,' explains John Woodward, chief executive of the independent producers' association, PACT. 'It is indirectly encouraged by the very low production budgets the production companies are forced to work on. It is a little self-righteous of broadcasters to wring their hands - and effectively condone it.'
The ITC tries to enforce its ban on product placement and 'undue prominence of products or services' within ITV programmes, but an ITC spokesman conceded: 'We have not yet upheld a complaint. Product placement requires money to change hands.'
The commission believes that its intervention, simply by querying allegations, does help. 'A letter from us will perhaps check a tendency that may be embryonic within a particular production team.'
The BBC denies the existence of such practices. 'Product placement occurs in no shape or form on the BBC and that includes the provision of goods or services in exchange for editorial,' a spokeswoman insisted.
Yet she said it was hard to generalise on how products were acquired. And with more programmes made by more producers for more channels, product placement on British television will become even harder to monitor.
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