UK needs rules to govern product placement, not a ban

Earlier this month, the Government once again rejected proposals to allow UK broadcasters to use product placement in television programmes.

Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer at MediaCom
Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer at MediaCom

Culture minister Andy Burnham repeated his "very serious concerns about blurring the boundaries between advertising and editorial".

In the other camp, Viviane Reding, European commissioner for information, society and media, said she "did not understand the logic of the UK Government", which she feels is "punishing UK production companies by not letting them have this revenue they heavily need to survive".

I'm with Reding on this one. The only way the product placement debate makes sense is if you follow the White Queen's advice to Alice in Through the Looking Glass. The White Queen says that, in her youth, she made a practice of "believing six impossible things before breakfast" and suggests Alice should try to do the same.

In the US, product placement is a billion-dollar industry and has been for some time. Therefore, UK consumers, whose TV diet is enriched by a stream of US imports, have been subjected to the placement of brands in programmes for decades.

While US imports may not always be the biggest programmes in terms of ratings, they are among our favourite. To suggest that UK-originated programming would in some way reduce in quality if the door was open to transparent product placement seems unjustifiable.

Furthermore, product placement has been going on for years anyway in the UK - only it is not official and money does not change hands.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 presenter Eddie Mair interviewed someone who used to run a UK product placement company. The interviewee carefully explained how he used to source material ranging from cars to breakfast cereal to help beleaguered production teams and to benefit his clients. It is a nonsense to suggest legalising a practice that is already widespread will open the floodgates to commercial exploitation.

Product placement is already happening in films. There are great examples of it working to enhance both film and brand, and there are infamous examples of it being misused.

A UK ban does not eliminate product placement from our screens. It cannot be banned from online programming and it will still appear in the movies.

We are in a global content economy and it would be better to allow product placement in the UK and to set up proper rules to govern it. To dismiss it as marginal in terms of income is to fail to understand that agency media planners do not confine themselves to planning the use of advertising.

Content in all its forms is now key to any planning process and planners would love to consider a role for product placement in their communications strategies.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom

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