Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Product placement - the Guild's submission to Ofcom

As the debate about product placement on TV intensifies, here's the submission made to Ofcom by Edel Brosnan on behalf of the Guild's TV Committee earlier this year.

Proposed rule change on product placement on TV - a response from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain

Edel Brosnan, 26 May 2008

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain has been following the debate surrounding the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, and proposed changes to the rules governing product placement in scripted television programming with interest.

In an ideal world, the Guild would support retention of the status quo, which is clear and un-ambivalent in its prohibition of product placement.

However, the Guild recognises that at the present time, income from traditional advertising and programme sponsorship is in a state of flux. The Guild also recognises that the current ban on product placement may potentially lead to difficulties in funding future scripted television content.

At present, product placement is not permitted in terrestrial or digital television programming. It is permitted in programming produced and distributed online – for instance, it features in a teen drama distributed online. Viewers are also familiar with product placement in television shows from overseas, such as Sex and the City.

The recent ban on junk food advertising aimed at children has had an inadvertent and unintended negative impact on the production of children’s television. We support the Save Children’s TV campaign, and we also believe that arguments in favour of product placement need to be considered carefully, and pragmatically, to avoid jeopardizing the future of British-made scripted television programmes for an adult audience.

At present, funding for television drama, comedy, drama documentaries, and children’s programming comes from many sources: the licence fee, programme-specific sponsorship, paid-for advertising on analogue and digital channels and, increasingly, from online advertising on broadcasters’ associated websites.

In principle, we remain cautious about the advisability and workability of product placement as a source of funding. In practice, we hope that clear guidelines and conscientious regulation will ensure that the benefits of product placement outweigh the potential difficulties.

We have a number of questions and comments about the practicalities of the proposed rule changes.

a) Definition

How will product placement be defined; what are the parameters surrounding acceptable and unacceptable use of product placement?

b) Regulatory control

Parliament should enact legislation to define, monitor and regulate product placement activities; a voluntary code of practice is unlikely to be sufficient.

c) Editorial control

How will product placement affect the programming with which it is associated? Will sponsors and advertisers purchase the right to have a product, such as a soft drink or brand of clothing, featured in a scripted show? Or will they also purchase a right to exercise editorial control over the humorous and/ or dramatic content of the show? We would caution against any changes that fundamentally change the editorial decision-making process.

d) Diversity

At present, writers, commissioners, producers and broadcasters in the UK endeavour to create high quality television, reflecting the lives and lifestyles of the whole nation. Characters and stories are drawn from high-income, middle income and low-income groups. We need to ensure that product placement does not lead to an over-reliance on aspirational programming, or a reluctance to tell stories about marginalized, unpopular or lower-income groups. Natural realism has a long and honorable tradition in British film and television, from the “angry young men” of the 1950s, to Shameless, Eastenders and Coronation Street today. British television needs to engage with and reflect the lives of all our television viewers, regardless of income, age, disability, sexual orientation and racial or national identity. Product placement tends to favour shows with an aspirational dimension – where characters enjoy a relatively high income and associated lifestyle. It is vital that programming about, and for, lower-income groups continues to be made.

e) Transparency

There will inevitably be some audience resistance to the introduction of product placement. If handled in a less than frank and open manner, it may reduce the bond of trust between broadcaster and viewer. Where product placement does take place, there should be clear and un-ambivalent acknowledgement of the fact. The need for openness, transparency and accountability must outweigh any arguments in favour of commercial confidentiality. In other words, if a company wishes to engage in product placement, the viewer must be made fully aware of this at all times.

f) Exceptions

A child’s media literacy is less developed and sophisticated than an adult’s, therefore product placement is not appropriate in children’s television. Programmes that are directly funded through the licence fee, under current guidelines on advertising and sponsorship, should not enter into product placement agreements.

To conclude, while the Guild remains cautious about the benefits of product placement, we welcome the current debate on the risks and opportunities associated with product placement. We urge all stakeholders and decision makers to ensure a climate of transparency, robust regulation and accountability if the rules on product placement are relaxed.


  1. Anonymous10:56 pm

    Edel here: firstly, apologies for the slightly stilted policy-doc-speak, this paper was originally written as a response to Ofcom's proposal to relax the rules on product placement on TV. However, I do think the main point still stands - product placement is not ideal, but the alternatives could be even worse.

    We really need to hear what Guild members are thinking though - so please, use the blog to give us your take on the issue. As long as you're playing the ball and not the (wo)man, all comments and criticisms, bouquets and brickbats are welcome.

  2. Gail Renard11:01 am

    I think Edel's paper is a fair and brilliantly reasoned document which allows everyone to have a healthy debate on the subject. I'm not against product placement under carefully considered and controlled circumstances, as described above. But I believe it can neither be a knee-jerk reaction nor miracle cure for poor network management and/or programming. You've got to fix the fabric of your house before you can decide on the pretty kitchen tiles.


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