CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/PROGRAMME SPONSORSHIP - The changing face of TV programme sponsorship. Sponsoring a programme needs a credible link or a good ident

Like all new media opportunities, the early days of TV sponsorship were marked by a certain amount of clumsiness.

Restricted by more circumspect Independent Television Commission codes, media owners did not realise the true value of what they were selling and consequently failed fully to exploit the opportunity. For their part, agencies sometimes failed to make a credible link between the programme and the advertiser.

Fortunately, though, things have moved on in the past 11 years and the bizarre days when the German white goods manufacturer AEG would sponsor a series such as Poirot are over.

Sponsorship has become more commonplace and broadcasters, media agencies and their creative counterparts are better versed in matching up an advertiser with the right opportunity and creative. Such is their success, it is common to see programmes sponsored by a number of different advertisers during their lives. A good example of this is Friends on Channel 4, which has been variously sponsored by hairspray, coffee and now Australian wine.

Jacob's Creek paid £850,000 for the sponsorship of series eight, which was well down on the £5 million Wella paid for its 60-show deal in 1997 - a decline reflecting the general malaise in the advertising sector.

That said, Friends remains one of Channel 4's top-rating shows and the station was keen to capitalise on its success. But with Jacob's Creek becoming the show's third sponsor, it raises the question of whether viewers can become confused by constantly changing idents, preventing advertisers getting value for money.

David Charlesworth, Channel 4's head of sponsorship, doesn't think so.

"As long as each sponsor is given time to settle in, there are no back-to-back deals over a prolonged period and the creative work is up to standard, then it's not a problem, he claims.

The creative work seems to be key in establishing a brand over its predecessors - but it can also go badly wrong. BT Cellnet's "flies" idents for last year's Big Brother were widely criticised as irritating. However, this year's efforts, for the rechristened O2, arguably put Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest's bubbles campaign to more coherent use than the original ads.

Coronation Street has equally been applauded for its clever use of creative.

"Everybody knows that Coronation Street is sponsored by Cadbury, because sponsorship credits that evoke a mood are the ones that work, particularly over a long period of time, the head of 4creative, Lisa Green, says.

"It's easy to get the mood wrong, by simply plonking a logo or a re-cut ad on to the front of someone's favourite programme. Do this and you're in grave danger of devaluing the programme brand, not to mention wasting precious advertising budget. If you ignore the programme then why not just buy ad space?"

While getting the right creative is vitally important, finding a suitable programme is also key and Nick Walford, a managing partner of the MindShare sponsorship division, Broadmind, thinks that appropriate sponsorship goes beyond the demographic fit.

"If it is just a demographic fit then we are in danger of treating sponsorship as simply advertising time. If there is no motivating link created for the viewer between the programme and the brand then the full impact of the sponsorship association is lost, he says.

Yet the demographic riches are often enough to attract advertisers without any obvious link to the content. ITV's Cold Feet has had a variety of sponsors throughout its history, including United Airlines and BMW-Mini, and although claiming that there was a natural link between the advertiser and the programme might be a bit of a stretch, the series provided an envious audience profile.

Oliver Croom-Johnson, the director of the sponsorship specialists, SPP, thinks that sponsorship can be divided into two broad categories. "The first is associative, such as the Friends and Nescafe sponsorship or Beamish and Inspector Morse. The product gains an image change via acquiring programme values. The other is literal, where a sponsor identifies a programme which directly reflects his or her business such as The Movie Chart Show sponsored by Blockbuster Video, he says.

He adds that on a more simple level, some sponsorship, such as Powergen's long-standing support of the ITV weather, despite the lack of a direct link, has been successful because of the longevity and quality of the idents.

Whereas once a broadcast sponsorship might have made the national headlines, such deals have now become a mainstream commodity and there is a danger that consumers just see it as clutter.

"Certainly one must assume that consumers are becoming more aware of sponsorship and developing a point of view about it, Walford says. "In the research I've seen though, consumers believe that the sponsorship money goes into the show, which is obviously beneficial to the sponsor."

Sponsorship has arguably developed to the extent that you notice when a programme isn't sponsored, not when it is. Croom-Johnson thinks the UK's experience is different from the rest of the world.

"The way that it is rendered fits comfortably with the culture of the nation, he says. "The 'and now a word from our sponsor' approach witnessed in Europe and the US does not work here. However, someone who indicates gently that they are the nice people who bring you your favourite programme gains instant popularity."

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