Is product placement a hit?

Are brands making the most of the new TV freedoms, Alasdair Reid asks.

Nationwide cash dispenser on ITV's Coronation Street.
Nationwide cash dispenser on ITV's Coronation Street.

One year on, and we reckon it's just about safe to say that the fabric of cultural life in this great nation has not yet been torn asunder. Back in December 2010, Ofcom gave in to years of lobbying by broadcasters (in particular, ITV) and revealed it was introducing guidelines allowing product placement in UK commercial television.

In February 2011, we saw the first fruits of this deregulation when a Dolce Gusto coffee machine was seen lurking in the background of a This Morning cookery demonstration. Since then, we've seen some even bigger deals - TRESemme with Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model on Sky Living, a New Look clothing tie-in with Channel 4's T4 strand and a Nationwide cash dispenser in the corner shop on ITV's Coronation Street.

Last week, ITV celebrated the first anniversary of its new product placement freedoms by renewing its deal with Nationwide. Evidence, if it were needed, that this is a phenomenon that is here to stay.

But has it been a real success? For decades, various leading factions of the chattering classes - Labour MPs, BBC presenters and programme-makers, centre-left newspaper columnists, satirists and stand-up comedians - were scathing every time the notion of product placement was raised. Here, they said, was yet another instance of the cultural Barbarians massing at the gates.

But the fact that the past year has been virtually controversy-free rather speaks for itself. No surprise, perhaps, to advertisers and their agencies - which have always been confident that, handled deftly, the practice of product placement is not necessarily morally corrosive.

Actually (they've always added), product placement can enhance quality, adding an extra veneer of "reality" to programme sets while allowing for the possibility that production budgets can err on the stingy side. Indeed, some commercial broadcasters, under the cosh during a recession, have insisted that this new revenue stream is absolutely essential to the continued existence of a healthy commercial television economy.

However, sceptics tend to challenge this assertion - arguing that this market will never amount to anything more than a mildly diverting sideshow. So, are they correct?

Well, signals have been a little bit mixed, Gary Knight, the commercial content director at ITV, says. He concedes that the market has been slower than some anticipated. On the other hand, viewer feedback has been encouraging. He states: "Viewers expect to see real brands in shows and have a positive view to such placements - as long as the brands fit with the storyline, mood and character of the show."

He adds: "Further regulation education is required, as some clients believe they can get US-style overt product placement and expect brands to be written into scripts, which is way beyond the UK rules."

Knight believes that the sector will continue to grow: "I feel the production community has now bought into the product placement story and seems both genuinely enthusiastic and helpful in delivering opportunities in this area. I think revenue will rise gradually across 2012 as clients become more confident and, by 2013, most clients and agencies will begin to include product placement as part of their multiplatform planning process."

Agostino Di Falco, the partnerships director at Channel 5, would agree with much of that. He says the market has learned some important lessons over the course of the year: "The way you approach this is critical. We've had the opportunity to establish close working relationships with production companies, and that's essential. When it is integrated, and viewers are given a participatory role, then their response is very positive."

Rob Ramsey, the partnership lead at Channel 4, is also encouraged by viewer feedback. He says: "One of the things that came across is that people want authenticity. Brands are a part of everyday life, and there is no problem if authentic brands are seen in the right place at the right time. It's expected and it adds to the experience."

Jason Hughes, the head of branded content at BSkyB, tends to agree. He concludes: "The past year has been about exploring the possibilities. It's about finding the right fit for the right brand. It's about finding the right opportunities and making them work.

"There have been no Ofcom complaints - a measure of how responsible everyone has been. And the response we've had from focus groups is that there is an opportunity to do much more with brands.

I think all the evidence we've seen has been positive."

MAYBE - Gary Knight, commercial content director, ITV

"The market has been slower than predicted, but I always thought it would require both patience and innovation to kick-start activity. We are still building a case for it as a powerful component within a client's marketing activity."

MAYBE - Agostino Di Falco, partnerships director, Channel 5

"Our experience has been very positive, but expectations across the industry have varied wildly. Those who try to commoditise it or have a silo mentality may not have had such a positive experience."

YES - Rob Ramsey, partnership lead, Channel 4

"We didn't have any expectations or targets. We knew it would be a year of exploration, finding out what clients wanted, what would work, looking at the broader cultural framework and speaking to consumers and viewers about what their reactions might be."

YES - Jason Hughes, head of branded content, BSkyB

"I don't think anyone really thought there would be an explosion straight off the blocks. I think we've seen a responsible start - and all the evidence is that viewers react positively to the right fit for the right brand."

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