For those unfamiliar, product placement is the use of branded products within film and TV as a form of advertisement for the companies placing their products; these paid-for references help provide the filmmakers or television programme makers with an additional source of funding for their project.
In the U.S., product placement has a history in cinema that dates back more than a century. Back in 1927, for example, the silent film Wings had Hershey’s chocolate placed in it, and it went on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture, the only silent film ever to do so. Today, it remains very common in cinema and television alike. The practice here in the U.K., however, has long been banned. Instead, funding for our television programmes comes from either privately-secured means, commercial advertising (the adverts that play through the breaks in between halves or quarters of the shows on non-BBC channels), or through the TV licence fee for the BBC’s programmes.
Now, this is going to be changing. The change is not without its conditions though, which is important. Children’s programmes, for example, will have the ban kept in place, along with news and current affairs programmes, and the BBC’s funding will still be largely derived from the TV licence revenue. On top of that, if a product is to be placed, it needs to be signposted to the viewer that the placement has taken place, and it must be seamless and make sense within the script – we’re not going to be seeing any McDonald’s restaurants in the background of an eighteenth century period drama anytime soon.
Whilst I think the majority of regular advertising on television is a bit of a dull affair, I must admit that the removal of the ban on product placement in this country certainly has the potential to be a force for good. I would like to think that the British public is not so impressionable that they will be rushing to their nearest supermarket to pick up a pack of Ryvita crackers just because they see Kelly eating them on a diet in Coronation Street. (N.B. I of course mean no disrespect to Ryvita crackers. And I promise I had to look up the name of a character on Coronation Street, I know less than nothing about the programme.) As such, I think that it could well be a good change for both British TV and companies alike.
For the companies, if their products are actually good, then the expansion of the media through which they can advertise will naturally increase awareness and likely improve their sales. And for the makers of television programmes, it paves the way for a new avenue of funding that could well be the difference between something getting made or not made. As long as their integrity is not compromised, which the conditions for logical and seamless placing should ensure, I can see a strong argument for why the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
The flip-side of the argument is not without its merits too, though. Many films and TV shows seem to resort to blatant and ceaseless promotion of certain brands, which can start to become significantly less than subtle when a brand appears half a dozen times in a forty-minute programme. If it’s not properly regulated, and if the British public is in fact more impressionable than I give them credit, bringing product placement into our television shows could be a slippery path towards a consumerist society of excess. You could, of course, argue that there is nothing wrong with that. But there are many who would stand against it; the U.S., for example, tends to be the frequent target for lampoons against excessive consumerism.
In America, product placement is everywhere. In 24, for example, any mobile phone used by Jack or anyone else will, without exception, be branded with the Sprint network. In I, Robot, which has been criticised for its use of product placement, Will Smith’s beautiful “Vintage 2004” Converse shoes get a nice big close-up (they deserve it, they’re incredible!), the Audi logo abounds on all the futuristic vehicles throughout, and there’s a robot quite clearly marked with the FedEx name.
Then there are the comedies that go the other way, intentionally drawing attention to the products for the entertainment of the viewers, criticising the practice of product placement whilst simultaneously benefiting from the extra funding it grants them. (Genius.) In the TV show Arrested Development, the episode Motherboy XXX featured several references to Burger King throughout, and the episode was originally to be called ‘Tendercrisp Chicken Comedy Half-Hour’, referencing Burger King’s Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich.
And then there’s my personal favourite, the product placement in Wayne’s World, where Wayne and Garth brilliantly refuse to bow to their show’s sponsors, not wanting to sell out, whilst pointing a Pizza Hut box to the camera, eating from a pack of Doritos, sporting an entire Reebok outfit, and holding up a can of Pepsi. It’s brilliant.
Though I cannot say for sure, I think the people who look to have the most to lose, or the least to gain, from the reversal of the ban are the BBC. As critical as some people are of the TV licence, I think the calibre of much of the programming on the BBC proves its worthiness. And because of the licence, the BBC will not be involving itself with product placement, whilst its competing channels undoubtedly will be taking advantage of it. Hopefully it will simply lead to a greater standard of programming universally. An article on the BBC’s news website suggests that the change could bring in an additional £100m. in funding, so we can only hope that the money will be put to good use.
The impact that the lifting of the ban will have is too early to predict. I remain optimistic that its effects will be nothing but positive and allow more and more, and better and better, programmes to find their way to the small screen. Ultimately, the satisfaction of us, the viewers, is arguably one of the most important factors to consider when making a TV programme. Theoretically, then, the increase in funding for programming ought to only be of good consequence. Here’s to hoping that time (sponsored by Accurist) will prove me right.