Until very recently, the only deals which advertisers manufacturers and private companies could strike with television channels were arranging advertising slots within commercial breaks, or agreeing a deal to sponsor a show, with their brand messages being shown before and after the show. In 2011, under increasing pressure from television channels struggling to raise advertising revenue, the television authorities agreed to a limited degree of product placement on UK commercial television. The new rules apply to all channels except the BBC, which is publically funded and does not carry advertising.
When you start to look out for it, the number of brands seen on television programmes each day is staggering. Characters in dramas use mobile phones, cars and laptops, fashion items in morning magazine programmes feature clothes from certain shops, and characters in your favourite soap opera are seen drinking tea or eating cereal while they argue over the breakfast table. Before the rule change, real products were only allowed to be shown on screen if no money had changed hands. Many programme makers, especially on the BBC, shun brands completely which is why characters on Eastenders drink unbranded beer in the pub and why their children wear plain, unbranded clothing rather than Next or Baby Joules.
The new rules have changed the previous system in that manufacturers are now allowed to pay to have their product featured in a programme. A mobile phone maker might be keen to have their latest handset featured in a high-powered spy drama, and chocolate or drinks brands would love to have the large audience of something like Coronation Street watch characters drink their products. If agreements of this sort are made with programme makers, the audience will be told by the placement of a large letter P on the screen. The rules limit the programme makers in that they are not allowed to make deals with makers of products high in fat, or items such as cigarettes, alcohol, baby milk, medicine or gambling services.
Many critics of the new regulations feel that here in the UK we run the risk of going the way of the USA where product placement is everywhere, and none too subtle either. Coca-cola pay millions of dollars each year to have their branded glasses sitting in front of American Idol judges, but the same deal could not be struck here as Coca-cola is too high in sugar to get past the controls. We are likely to see more deals being done for product placement in soaps, so in the future it may not be unusual to see kids in soaps kitted out head to toe in Baby Joules or another upmarket brand. The BBC shows no signs of following the commercial channels, and the terms of the licence fee mean that they are not allowed to accept any advertising or sponsorship whatsoever. Because of the BBC’s restrictions on advertising, it seems likely that the drinkers in the Queen Vic will be drinking unbranded lager for quite some years to come.
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