Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Sunday, 13 September 2009 12:38 UK

Plugging the gap in TV revenue

By Victoria King
BBC News

Roger Cooper and Don Draper, characters in TV show Mad Men
Hit show Mad Men features brands like Heineken and Cadillac

If your favourite character in Corrie plugs a particular beer, or a celebrity chef raves about their supermarket, would you be more likely to pick that pint or shop at that store?

Advertisers think the answer is yes, but until now they haven't been able to exploit that fact because of the ban on television product placement in the UK.

With the ban now set to be lifted for independent broadcasters, there is the possibility of a flood of plugs within top shows - not just between them as we're used to.

Rules currently ban the inclusion of, or reference to, a product or service within a programme in return for payment.

References are allowed "where their inclusion within the programme is justified editorially", and goods can appear if they are obtained from a company for free or at a reduced rate to lower the cost of production.

So it's not uncommon to see the make of car driven by the detectives in an ITV crime drama.

But when the contestants on Channel 4's Big Brother open a tin of beans, the labels must be covered.

And Minty doesn't ask for a pint of Stella when he goes into the Queen Vic.

The 'in' thing

The rationale behind product placement is that if you see a certain item being used by a sexy person, wearing a great suit, driving a powerful car and living in a cool apartment, it follows that the product must be sexy, great, powerful and cool too.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland
If Jack Bauer likes Cisco computer security, surely it must be good?

Ordinary people can get very attached to their television heroes, so if their favourite character in Friends drinks Budweiser then they will want to too, the theory goes.

Cars, electronics and tobacco are particular favourites - after all they are easier to slip into most cult programmes than toilet cleaner.

In the US, product placement is big business.

According to Nielsen Media Research, there were 117,976 individual placements across America's top 11 TV channels in the first three months of last year.

Four years ago - and there has been massive growth since then - the value of these TV plugs was put at $941m (£564m).

So, Simon Cowell and his fellow judges on American Idol drink from Coca-Cola cups - at a reported cost of $26m to the company - while some US newsreaders openly hold McDonald's coffee cups.

Jack Bauer and his team praise Cisco computer security during episodes of 24 and the Desperate Housewives have openly parked their Buick cars on Wisteria Lane.

Plugging happens elsewhere in the world, too. In Russian television show Dom-2, which is similar to Big Brother, participants frequently make reference to a particular product, after which the camera zooms in on said product.

If it's done badly the viewers will switch off
Steve Hewlett, former ITV executive

And even beyond just using certain items, some shows have crafted whole plots around a brand, such as Absolut Vodka in Sex and the City.

Hit US show Mad Men - now shown on the BBC - uses a similar strategy. Set in an advertising agency, it regularly focuses episodes on campaigns for real-life companies such as Smirnoff, Cadillac and US Airways.

Some of these mentions at least are arranged by PR agencies, although not always paid for, but other firms such as Heineken have paid considerable sums for a favourable plug.

So just as 1960s Heineken managers go to the fictional Sterling Cooper for publicity, 21st Century bosses went to Mad Men creators AMC for a paid-for slot.

When these programmes are shown on British television the product placement doesn't have to be eliminated - although it sometimes is.

The BBC, therefore, screened Mad Men uncut, but when Simon Cowell takes a drink between damning judgements on American Idol the Coca-Cola name is blocked out.


Beyond television, many Hollywood blockbusters now rely on money from product placements to fund production.

James Bond's Aston Martin
Casino Royale was part-funded by money from firms like Aston Martin

A fifth of the $150m it took to remake Casino Royale came from more than 20 companies, from Sony to Aston Martin, who paid to have their goods shown.

For the Will Smith film I, Robot, Audi paid huge sums to have its cars featured throughout and even created a brand new model for the movie.

Media commentator and former ITV executive Steve Hewlett says the money from product placement could help broadcasters at a time when changing technology means fewer people watch conventional ad breaks.

"As more people have Sky+ boxes, Virgin Plus, BT Vision, you can skip the adverts," he says.

"One thing that this prevents is that ad skipping, because you can't skip through it without skipping through the programme."

And he says critics who fear the impact of product placement on programme quality should not be afraid.

"If it's done badly the viewers will switch off," he said. "If drama directors and producers and writers handle this badly they will undermine their own product, so there is a sense in which this is self-correcting."

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