Isn’t it time product placement was encouraged rather than banned?



The news a fortnight ago that Culture minister Andy Burnham has rejected proposals to allow product placement in British TV has caused a fairly widespread negative reaction across the advertising world, with bloggers and columnists alike disparaging his take on the subject as short-sighted and simultaneously behind the times, and it’s not hard to see why.

The fact is that the old distribution model is weakening under the strain of digital – Clay Shirky wrote in the Guardian in January about newspapers struggling to adapt to digital and burying their heads in the sand with regard to the impact the internet is having on their distribution model (which Rory Sutherland followed up on in Campaign on Friday, although doesn’t seem to be on their website yet). The same problems face the TV industry, although in this case the real crime is that legislation like this is forcibly pushing their heads under the surface and giving them little chance to adapt, even if they wanted to.

The problem facing distributors of all traditional media that must be paid for (either subsidised via advertising or not) is simple – once something has been digitised it can be copied, distributed for free, remixed, re-appropriated, and advertising can be removed (no matter how much DRM you might try to lock it up with). And that’s the ball game for TV as much as anything else – video on demand has eliminated ads from much of what we watch on our TV sets, as has sky+, and if you’re serious about watching TV online then Bittorrent and surfthechannel make the thought of watching ITV on Demand, with its frequent, unavoidable ad breaks, seem ridiculous. All of which makes the government’s refusal to even countenance product placement seem absurd – TV firms need to discover a viable distribution model for the digital age, and to cut off a potential source of revenue that is entirely intrinsic in a period as uncertain as this is potentially damaging to say the least.

It also makes very little sense in light of the recession. Advertising constitutes expenditure that encourages the growth of GDP – firms pay for advertising, which then encourages consumers to go out and spend money, which can then be fed back into further advertising etc. Frivolous, debt-funded expenditure is obviously not what is called for to get us out of the slump we are in, but capitalism needs advertising to function efficiently, to get people spending again and to keep people in work (you could argue against product placement of foreign goods to prevent money leaving our economy, but that’s potentially part of a far larger protectionism debate).

Lastly, what I find most frustrating about his decision is that it seems to be crying out for a world in which brands don’t exist. Sure, there are a fair number of horrible examples of product placement in films (Bond declaring “Omega” in Casino Royale springs to mind), but there are times when product placement really adds to a sense of realism. The first time you see the marines in Generation Kill eating Skittles (pictured above), for example, is incredibly powerful – these are guys who live in our world, who buy the same things we do, share our hopes and fears, and are looking for a little taste of home in an incredibly hostile, alien world, just as we probably would. In places like this, effective product placement really deepens the experience, blurring the lines between fiction and reality and immersing you further into what is already an incredible show. To attempt to keep programming at this remove from reality by banning brands from product placement is debasing to programmers and viewers alike – if placement is ridiculous it will be ridiculed, people aren’t stupid or as easily swayed as Andy Burnham seems to believe, and will vote with their remotes coldly and decisively when they feel they are being taken for a ride.

As the television industry is forced to adapt to the digital age and find a distribution model that allows it to survive, what it surely needs more than anything else right now is options – options that the government should surely be encouraging and proliferating rather than shutting down, because the other option (falling revenues, lower budgets and less original programming) isn’t good for anyone.


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One Response to “Isn’t it time product placement was encouraged rather than banned?”

  1. matt Says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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