Media Forum: Is Burnham's ad ban wrong?

Is culture MP's product placement decree bad news?

You didn't have to be a petrolhead to enjoy Ford's Dagenham Dream on BBC4 last week - there was plenty of stuff in there for aficionados of media history too.

It was a timely reminder of how adept Ford was at non-traditional media thinking back in the 70s and 80s, not just in terms of sponsoring motorsport, but also in its pursuit of the art of product placement.

So the programme became a glorious excuse to relive the days when the Sweeney were always driving a Ford during a climactic car chase. Not only that - the villains were almost always driving a Jag which they contrived to roll, just after ploughing through a mound of cardboard boxes on a derelict factory site out by Heathrow.

They don't make them like that anymore. No, really, they don't. They can't. Product placement - on a formal basis at least - is illegal. And will remain so, as long as the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, has anything to do with it.

Last week, Burnham revealed the Government had revisited this issue in view of the current economic situation and, taking into account lessons to be learned from the relatively unregulated US market, had decided the ban should stay in place.

In one tiny concession, the practice will be allowed within video-on-demand content, but product placement remains outlawed in home-produced UK programming for mainstream distribution.

ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, was furious. He has long argued for a relaxation of the rules, which he believes would be a modest concession to a commercial broadcasting market in meltdown, and he has indicated he will now seek a judicial review.

You could argue we're talking about relatively small potatoes here - estimates of the possible market value of product placement in the UK stretch from around £70 million to £150 million a year.

But that's hardly the point. Paul Evans, the media and integrated marketing planning manager, EMEA at Kimberly Clark, believes Burnham's stance is regrettable. He argues that the MP's main concern, that advertisers would abuse new freedoms, can be discounted.

He explains: "The effective precedent is there through video-on-demand programmes and films shown in the UK, with examples of how these successful brand partnerships have been achieved without diminishing audience trust or discrediting editorial integrity. The challenge then is to establish a framework for responsible governance as a means of extending product placement into UK TV - it appears this chance has been lost."

Meanwhile, Mark Boyd, the head of content at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, points out we have one of the most over-regulated broadcast markets in the world.

He adds: "I don't think it's right that there's now an imbalance between what you can do in digital and what you can do in the broadcast world. We don't want to see the two becoming separated. We all still want to see the sorts of (mainstream broadcast) programmes that we all talk about."

Surely, though, the online world will be rather happier. Not so, Steve Read, the managing director of the online product placement agency Brandirector, counters. He says: "For us, in the short term, it might be good news. Over the longer term, however, we want to see product placement taken seriously by everybody and it (Burnham's review) was a great opportunity for that to happen."

Simon Willis, the head of programming at Mindshare Worldwide, agrees: "It would be terrible if we saw crude forms of product placement where brands were crowbarred-in gratuitously, but broadcasters tend not to do that because viewers just turn off. And when it is done well, it actually enhances the programming by adding authenticity. What's more, there's evidence that people enjoy the product placement in things like James Bond films. What the Government is saying is that the audience is basically stupid."

YES - Paul Evans, media and marketing planning manager, EMEA, Kimberly Clark

"The creative opportunity for advertisers to work with broadcasters, integrating brands in a relevant way to add value to content and programming, was genuine."

YES - Mark Boyd, head of content, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Money's flowing out of the UK because big companies are keen to see their brands featured on TV. Is it so terrible seeing (say) a Heineken can in a drama when the alternative is not having that drama at all?"

YES - Steve Read, managing director, Brandirector

"Yes, digital benefits in the short term but, long term, we want all ad agencies to get their head around this and that will happen when product placement is mainstream. The market has been stiffed by a self-serving MP."

YES - Simon Willis, head of programming, Mindshare Worldwide

"It's bad for advertisers and for the public. Product placement is a chance for a different relationship with audiences. The MP is worried about programme quality - well, we now face the problem that it won't be good quality anyway, because the money's not there."