MEDIA FORUM: Should advertisers be more vigilant of TV shows? - The companies whose ads were shown during Brass Eye were not best pleased. Have they the right to be annoyed? Alasdair Reid investigates.

Who'd have thought it? Chris Morris made a controversial television

programme. No, honestly, he did. That's Chris "I make controversial

television programmes for a living" Morris. Just about everything he's

ever done has pushed someone's buttons somewhere and the recent Brass

Eye special that satirised media hysteria was deemed so inflammatory by

the usually fearless Channel 4 bosses that they pulled it from its

original scheduling slot while they sought copious amounts of legal

advice.



So they must have been as surprised as everyone else that Brass Eye

turned out to be, um, controversial. Controversial enough, in fact, to

whip up what the Daily Mail would probably call "a storm" - and let's

face it, the Mail, which is blessed by a large constituency of

shopkeepers among its readership, has a greater number of pushable

buttons than most media outlets.



Morris and the Mail obviously need each other desperately and the

paper's attempts to work up a wrathful fury of Old Testament proportions

was arguably the most satisfying aspect of this episode - it was a prime

example of the sort of media hysteria that Brass Eye sought to satirise.

There's a pleasing symmetry at work here.



Astonishing. It must be summertime. Perhaps a name might be found for

this sort of period in the life of the nation. Something, perhaps, like

"the silly season".



But credit where credit is due - it was the Mail that pointed out that

the issue had also touched on the lives of a number of advertisers. Two

- Tesco and Heineken - got wind of the fact that they were scheduled

into the programme and promptly pulled their commercials. A number of

others, including Renault and Boots, didn't find out in time and their

ads ran. Were they right to feel aggrieved?



Viewers, after all, are still free in this country to change channels or

even turn off their televisions. But sometimes advertisers don't realise

they're associating their brands with controversy until it's too

late.



Renault insists it is happy with the relationship it has with Channel 4

and is not interested in adding fuel to the fire. The company's head of

marketing communications, Chris White, comments: "Previously Channel 4

has informed us when it thinks a programme is going to be controversial,

normally through our media agency. In this particular instance, Channel

4 did not inform us or Carat about the content of the programme and this

particular episode of Brass Eye is not something we would have chosen to

advertise in. However we are confident of our ongoing relationship with

Channel 4."



This system, however loosely constituted, usually works. For instance,

back in June Channel 4 sent Renault a preview tape of Men Only, a

programme that the advertiser was due to sponsor as part of its overall

sponsorship of Channel 4 drama. The programme's storyline lurched from

one violent drink and drugs binge session to another, punctuated by the

occasional gang rape. But in the end, Renault saw no problem with the

programme's content and the sponsorship stood.



There is a long history to this issue. Some advertisers have pretty

obvious sensitivities and many give clear guidelines to their media

agencies.



For instance, Kellogg, being a purveyor of wholesome family brands, will

only buy into wholesome family programming. But accidents can happen -

such as when BA ads ran in ITV's showing of the spoof disaster movie

Airplane a few years back.



Mark Jarvis, the broadcast director of Carat, says that this whole issue

is one that both agencies and advertisers are very much aware of. He

says: "Clients are concerned about going into programmes that are

tasteless in a broad general sense - such as Brass Eye, obviously - and

those that include material pertinent to their brands. A manufacturer of

slimming products, for instance, might not want to go into a documentary

about slimming. Some advertisers are more attuned to this than

others."



According to some buyers, the technical problem with Brass Eye was the

fact it was rescheduled. They didn't realise that ads booked for that

particular time on that particular night were now in a potential danger

zone. On the other hand, tweaks to the schedule are commonplace - surely

the fact of that matter is that vigilance was lacking.



Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative Media, says it's difficult

to envisage a foolproof system to stop this sort of thing happening. To

pick up on every possible embarrassment, you'd have to vet every break

on every station.



He adds: "In most instances, as in the case of Brass Eye, the (current)

system has worked and the station has reacted by moving the ads.

Generally, the broadcast industry in the UK executes a high level of

sensitivity and has the appropriate systems in place to protect

advertisers from inappropriate slots. This latest example only serves to

keep everybody on their toes."



So, was it mainly the broadcaster's fault? Andy Barnes, the commercial

director of Channel 4, was, in the grand tradition of such

controversies, unavailable for comment. But other broadcasters were

willing to talk about the issue.



Steve Platt, the managing director of Carlton Sales, insists that

broadcasters have thorough monitoring systems in place. But he also

reckons we can learn from the US system. He concludes: "We broadcast a

lot of spots in the UK now, what with cable and satellite, so it's

getting increasingly difficult to monitor. But in the US, where they've

always broadcast a lot of spots, there's been another factor - the

existence of powerful Bible-belt pressure groups. If an advertiser goes

into a smutty programme they might find a pressure group sending round

circulars saying the advertiser should be blacklisted. So in the US,

agencies have dedicated departments whose job it is to view the content

of every single programme. Perhaps they should be considering something

like that here."



Nick Theakstone, the broadcast director of MediaVest, points out that it

can sometimes be difficult with Channel 4 because so much of the

schedule comes with some form of health warning. But he doesn't believe

there's a need for dedicated agency vetting departments. He comments:

"Clearly it's the responsibility of buyers to know exactly what they are

buying and the creative placement of spots within appropriate

environments clearly illustrates that they do. We all have to be aware

of the issues, both buyers and broadcasters. But when it comes down to

it, a large amount of responsibility must lie with the broadcaster

because in the end they are in control of what they put out."