“What is unacceptable offline should not be acceptable online – for example, child pornography and other crimes like fraud or theft.”
Was DCMS Secretary of State Andy Burnham really likening Bond’s product-placed Sony gadgets to kiddie porn? Or Kiefer Sutherland’s mobile phone to shoplifting?
In his inflammatory speech Burnham hammered home his affection for the standards that have made Britain great: the standards of the watershed, the standards of impartial BBC news, and the standards of keeping advertisers in their place.
Why did Burnham say this? To set the tone? To ask for guidance? Surely not to shut down a consultation process before it had even started. So I visited the Westminster Media Forum where, sure enough, DCMS policy head Chris Bone said Burnham was “instinctively unwilling” to put his name to the European directive that frees up product placement.
And yet one thing is certain, that if the business models aren’t changed the business will go away. The days of creative talent being packaged by producers to sell to TV channels who pass advertiser money back down the line are numbered. Google (and Yahoo and Vodafone and all the other digital players) are not going to get into commissioning. But they are working hard to take advertising budget away from the traditional value chain.
The truly appalling betrayal of trust in television in the past 24 months – that of misleading the phone voting audience, deliberately or otherwise – seems to have knocked Burnham into Middle England, where new is bad and old is trustworthy. He has a mandate to balance the needs of old and new audiences as well as old and new media. But maybe it’s not about old and new, so much as those who live in a branded world and those who don’t (or don’t want to).
There is a place for people who like a world free of brands, messages, and reminders of the high street: it is called the BBC, where producers studiously erase the grubby link between audiences and the brands they are so familiar with.
But the DCMS risks imposing an artificial Auntie Beeb mindset on the nation as a whole. We live in a branded world and television should reflect that. Not to do so risks patronising the audience and, perhaps worse, damaging editorial credibility: if we’re going for realism, wouldn’t the inhabitants of Albert Square be awash with Nike swoops. Isn’t the absence of Burberry as notable as the obscenity-free language of Grange Hill?
In fact, people who live in a branded world might prefer a well-crafted story (which includes the authenticity of brands) to the interruption of spot advertising.
But we can’t gloss over the issue of standards. Standards are important; they are what makes British creative work stand out. (It’s certainly not the budget!) There is a real fear, reflected and amplified by Burnham, that editorial decisions will be influenced by the availability of product placement money. The missing word in that sentence is ‘badly’: that editorial will be badly influenced. All sort of influences play a part in story development: from the budget to the slot to the tastes of a commissioner. What should be avoided is one dominant influence negatively affecting all the others.
There is a real potential for product placement to damage editorial standards. They are quickly obvious, and usually lampooned as seen in this ‘I, Robot’ and Transformers. There’s even a channel on YouTube called “Product Placement Top 100″. Devising guidelines around day-parts and genres ignores the obvious fact that the overall content must still be good. Crass bulldozing of products into storylines is damaging to the brands that place them there as much as they are to the reputation of the channels that carry them.
And here I’m going to suggest something – quietly, sincerely – that we don’t hear often. I believe advertising brands can raise the quality. Brands need consistent, high value engagement with their audiences. They need to convince their audiences that the experience is so good you actually want to participate in the product as well! Can I be mischievous and suggest that many TV shows simply need to provide ‘good enough’ quality to prevent someone from changing channels? How many Media Study graduates dream that they might one day write scripts like “It’s day six and the Big Brother Housemates have been licking crisps for 33 minutes”? (I didn’t make that one up I’m sad to say.)
Ironically, a decision by the DCMS to outlaw product placement will harm the British creative industry in two ways. Refusing new business models will hand new advertiser money to online that would otherwise go into 360-degree production. And it will inspire a Mark Burnett-like brain drain where production companies set up shop in more tolerant European countries, develop product placement businesses there, and sell the resulting programmes back into the UK in the vein of programmes like CSI and 24. (The DCMS confirmed that the current framework allows this as long as British broadcasters don’t make any money from it!)
The decision is in the hands of the DCMS and Ofcom but, in the end, success is in the hands of the brands. The government has a role to respond to people complaining of undue prominence or misleading statements, but that only happens when a brand is over-exposed in the editorial.
Brands need to take ownership of that problem. If the brand fashions itself into the script, if it becomes a part of the editorial, if it works with the producers and the distributors, if it chooses carefully among the opportunities, then everything can work better.
And who knows, maybe one day we’ll see Burberry hats in Albert Square.