Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Why is everybody so shocked over reports that the BBC is blatantly allowing product placement in many of its programmes? Hasn't Auntie dropped her knickers once too often to claim to be an ad-free medium any more? Surely it's time for everybody to be upfront about it and agree what the old girl should be paid for her favours?

A: This is a marshy one, so stand by for some heavy squelching. If I were writing a TV play about a particular kind of advertising executive from the 80s, I'd have him wearing tasselled Gucci loafers. But I wouldn't expect to be paid by Gucci. Indeed, given the kind of advertising executive I was portraying, Gucci might even be tempted to consult their lawyers.

Thirty years earlier, Ian Fleming had used posh brands to endow the unknown James Bond with glamour and sophistication. From the moment that brands became a part of life, it was inevitable and proper that they would also become part of literature. In the colouring in of character, they have real value.

Indeed, while the BBC doggedly maintained its rigid Reithian ban on the use of real product names, all BBC plays took place in strange, no-man's lands, as remote from reality as Ambridge remains today.

So far so good. But now broadcasters look for new sources of income and advertisers look for new ways to reach people. And what the advertisers really want, it seems, in that slightly sinister phrase, is "to get in under the radar". And that, presumably, means paid-for publicity which people believe isn't.

The assumption here, again unspoken, is that publicity known to have been bought has a lesser value than that which seems to have been achieved on merit. Or, to pin it down finally: part of the value of product placement is dependent on its conscious deception of the public. And it's at this point that I get a bit queasy; and queasier still when we come to Auntie.

I still haven't the faintest idea how to define it, but I know that public service broadcasting exists and that it has particular obligations. Equally, like you, I don't see why the BBC should be denied a legitimate source of additional income. So the solution seems to me a simple one. Whenever a product placement deal has been negotiated, the BBC should preface the broadcast with a visual/verbal statement of agreed duration: "The Anglo-Galvanized Company, makers of the AGC earth-moving equipment featured in this programme, contributed £500,000 to its production costs."

We could all then judge the programme fairly. Writers and directors might be deterred from outrageous brand worship. And Anglo-Galvanized would have to decide whether their influence, now uncloaked, was still worth the money it cost them.

Nobody much minds when companies and individuals give large sums of money to political parties. But we certainly would if we didn't know about it - if you see what I mean.

Q: My son tells me he wants to go into advertising. I could ask the ad agency that handles our account to take him in for a couple of weeks' work experience, but fear it reeks of cronyism. What do you think?

A: No, not cronyism; just abuse of your company position for personal gain. What's more, your agency, if it had any sense, would spoil your son rotten.

There'd be heady days on a commercials shoot, a shopping trip with Carmelle from casting and long pool sessions on the creative floor. His drippy slogan would be called Serious Pencil Potential by the creative director and the CEO would take him to lunch at Mark's Club with his daughter.

You'd end up feeling hopelessly compromised and beholden; and he'd end up thinking advertising was wonderful.

Alternatively, word having got out that he was a client's sprog, his life would be made a misery. You'd end up being impotently angry and he'd end up thinking advertising was crap.

Which would be worse, I wonder?

Q: Is it ever right to try to sell a bad ad to a client?

A: Hundreds of bad ads are sold to clients every day. This is not as disgraceful as it sounds. It's just that the people who do the selling don't know that they're bad. They've been told by the people who created them that they're wonderful and have been conditioned to be submissive. The only ads that everyone can agree are bad are other people's.

But if you do actually know beyond doubt or peradventure that an ad is a stinker, and you still set out to sell it to your client, then St Peter will give you a very frosty reception indeed.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@ haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.


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