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Slowly, Slowly Catchy Monkey

Medialease’s Paul Robson on why less is definitely more when it comes to product placement

 

When it was welcomed onto UK television screens this time last year, Product Placement (PP) was hailed as one of UK commercial TV’s great white hopes.

 

Following in the footsteps of feature films – where James Bond’s “Skyfall” is reputed to have raised as much as $45m in PP deals – and TV shows in the US where PP has been around for a while, this latest commercial innovation was set to fill some of the gap left by the lull in traditional TV advertising.

 

As a result, at launch, it was predicted by Ofcom that the PP market could be worth £25-30m a year in revenues by 2016 or thereabouts. More recently NMG Product Placement valued the UK “Paid for” Product Placement Market at between £9.7m and £29.1m annually.

 

However, if experts are to be believed, in the first year of PP in the UK only ten deals have been done at a combined value of less than £1m.

 

Teething problems? Possibly. But there’s also a good chance that these poor results are indicative of a number of things, not least a confusion as to what can and can’t be considered product placement and a conflicting interests between brands and broadcasters.

 

Before I elaborate, let’s briefly examine some of the background. The UK’s PP rules for television are quite different from the US where pretty much anything goes. Here, and across Europe, you can’t use PP to promote certain products such as tobacco and alcohol, it’s not allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes and there must be a signal of placement at the beginning and end of the show in which it features.

 

Not only that but, perhaps more importantly, the product placement must not influence editorial content, the product itself cannot be given “undue prominence” and the placement cannot promote buying the product.

 

As you can see, it’s quite strict.

 

Quite simply, you’re never going to be seeing a bottle of beer or leading brand Cola slapped on the desk in front of the Britain’s Got Talent’s judges in the way that you might in the US.

 

Despite that, since the rules came into place in February 2011, there have been occurrences of PP in Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as Stella, Law and Order: UK and Shameless.

 

If you haven’t spotted any PP yourself, check out the corner shop in Coronation Street. There is a Nationwide building society cash machine in there. It’s easy to spot but it’s not too blatant. I, for one, have no problem with it.

 

The thing that intrigues me is the reasons given for why advertisers have not embraced the PP opportunity.

 

ITV’s top man Adam Crozier says that PP rules have not been relaxed far enough (well he would wouldn’t he!) while other people suggest that because broadcasters are charged with policing PP they are unwilling to take risks (I can see that). Another common complaint is that setting a value for a PP deal can be tricky as there is no heritage that can provide context or benchmarks.

 

I cannot argue with any of those points but I would suggest that one of the biggest problems is meeting the expectations of advertisers. After all, if these guys won’t lend their support and budgets to PP it’s not going to get the traction it needs in the UK.

 

Some of the people I speak to who inhabit that world expect to be given the chance to be blatant with their PP. I think some of them crave the obvious branding that you see on American Idol where fizzy drinks cups feature prominently on the judges’ desk. If that is the case I think these people are missing the point.

 

PP will only be successful if it remains subtle. As a TV viewer I have no problem with a postman in Coronation Street working for the Royal Mail or a character in a drama drinking a brand cola in a pub as long as neither is forced down my throat. Equally, I don’t mind brands being included in dialogue as it makes the show more realistic.

 

However, as soon as it becomes overly blatant or aggressive (think about the Pizza Hut joke in Wayne’s World) viewers, like me, will start to change channels.

 

At the same time, if you allow lots of brands to be blatant you lose the exclusive, stealthy nature of PP. And once exclusivity is lost, it’s harder to persuade agencies to part with the big bucks.

 

Major brands have said they are willing to try PP in the UK. This is great news but I hope they realise that if they – and the broadcasters – push for, and get, more lenient regulation that they risk alienating viewers.

 

My advice is don’t consider PP for new product launches – that needs more bang for the buck. Consider it for brand awareness. And make it subtle.

 

Less, as they say, is definitely more when it comes to PP. Now, where did I put that bottle of Flensburger Pilsner…

 

Paul Robson is the Managing Director of Medialease, a specialist finance company providing asset funding and finance solutions to the broadcast television and film industries

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