By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
Rappers are being invited by McDonald's to drop the words "Big Mac" into songs, while some British TV looks set to follow cinema by allowing brands to feature in shows. Product placement is no longer confined to the big screen.
As name drops go it wouldn't win awards for subtlety but the lyrics of rapper Petey Pablo's 2004 US hit Freek-a-Leek are a measure of things to come.
"Now I got to give a shout out to Seagram's gin
Cause I drink it, and they payin' for it."
And they were. In a ground-breaking deal Seagram's gin offered to pay rappers to use its name in the lyrics of their songs. Petey was one of five artists to take the drinks maker up on the offer and, in turn, have his lyrics OK'd by the company.
Now McDonald's, which has weathered more attacks on its marketing strategy than most in recent years, appears to be following suit. According to Advertising Age magazine, the fast food chain has offered to pay rappers up to £2.70 ($5) every time a song name-checking the Big Mac is played.
Good for artistic inspiration? The Big Mac
It's not just pop culture where the traditional art of advertising is morphing into something quite unrecognisable, some may say insidious.
Four years ago, esteemed author Fay Weldon became perhaps the first novelist to be paid for product placement in one of her books, The Bulgari Connection, in which the Italian jewellery maker was mentioned dozens of times.
Then, last year, British "chick lit" writer Carole Matthews went further, signing a deal with Ford to mention its cars prominently in several of her works. No prizes for guessing the thrust of her forthcoming novel, You Drive Me Crazy.
Cinema-goers will be familiar with product placement in films: those countless examples where the camera lingers just a little too long over a logo before shifting back to the main action. Now, more than 50 years after Hollywood wised up to the fact that companies will pay to have their brands featured within the narrative of a movie, advertisers have begun to extend the principle to formats such as books, pop songs, videos and computer games.
First known example, Gordon's gin in 1951's The African Queen
Top Gun was partly funded by the US Navy and sent recruitment soaring
Coke paid $26m each to be featured in American Idol (US version of Pop Idol)
Up to this point though, British TV has remained firmly off-limits to companies which see pound signs where the rest of us see jars of instant coffee.
Not your typical romantic lead
Ofcom, the UK's media watchdog, has signalled a significant change of policy on the matter. Earlier this month its chief executive Stephen Carter said if product placement was allowed in films, "in principle, why not in television?"
The argument is this: TV advertisers believe the advent of personal video recorders (PVRs) such as Sky+, which are also increasingly available on other platforms like Freeview, spell doom for their trade because they make fast-forwarding through commercial breaks a doddle.
While similar predictions were made of video recorders 20 years ago, PVRs are infinitely more user-friendly. And because you can begin playing back a programme while it's still recording, in theory anyone with a PVR can begin watching a show 10 minutes after it started, whizz through the commercials and finish up at the same time as those who had to sit through the ad breaks.
Research shows that in programmes recorded, two-thirds to 80% of ads are skipped. Coupled with the prediction that by 2012 up to eight million homes are expected to have PVRs and the future for TV advertising appears to look a bit shaky.
As it stands, product placement is already allowed on British TV (both BBC and commercial channels) to add a sense of realism. But under the current "free supply" rules programme makers cannot profit from it, and the brand has limited say over how it is featured on screen.
The villain of the piece - PVRs could be in 8m homes in a few years
In US television, as in movies, the brands can go a step further, paying programme makers handsomely for some airtime, which they have control over. On big American shows, such as Desperate Housewives (shown in the UK on Channel 4) a 30-second commercial might cost $400,000 (£215,000), according to Frank Zazza, of product placement agents iTVX. The same money would buy perhaps a 20-second product placement, written into the script, on the same show.
But that's when the critics pipe up. When it comes to writing a product into a show, they say, who is in charge - the producer, or the product brand manager?
John Beyer, of the pressure group Media Watch UK, fears the regulator is "caving in to the advertisers". He fears brands will be "exploiting the subconscious", and rejects the theory that viewers are savvy enough these days to know when they are being marketed to.
"They are certainly not going to be aware that here's a product which has paid to be put there. It might be an idea for shows to announce, before the start, what's going to be advertised in the context of the programme that follows."
Ofcom has signalled that such a move would need to be weighed against public interest, the need for editorial independence and whether viewers knew they were watching adverts. And while drama, comedy and entertainment shows could benefit from product placement, news and current affairs would not. (BBC programmes would not, in any event, be affected by the proposal.)
American Idol panel. Spot anything?
The difficulty, though, would be in the crossover shows. The recent Channel 4 hit Jamie's School Dinners, which combined elements of traditional entertainment with factual issues, is a case in point.
But one executive in the UK's current "free supply" product placement arena believes any debate risks overstating the real impact.
Steven Read, whose company 1st Place Props supplies branded goods to TV and film makers, says only the flagship shows - "like Coronation Street and Emmerdale" - will draw big money offers from brands. Even then, he disparages the claim that such placements will interfere with the natural narrative of the show.
"A placement has to work in the context of the programme it's in," says Mr Read. "We strive to organically place a product within a show. If something jumps out of the screen at you, then that's wrong."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Did I read this right?! The regulator is supporting this change because TV advertisers say they might go out of business as a result of the rise in popularity of PVRs.
Why is it the regulator's job to support a company or industry whose circumstances have changed? This is only a thin line away from the regulator directly subsidising that industry! It's not "caving in" to the advertisers, it's actively colluding with them.
Chris Taylor, York, UK
I don't see why commercial stations shouldn't do this. It's fine as long as character don't say things like, "Hey Alfie, fancy a pint? I'm having a pint of Stella because it's reassuringly expensive."
Anthony Enticknap, Hants, UK
What I would like to know is, how will the BBC handle the showing of material that is laced with product promotions? Will they cut out such clips from films and ban the broadcasting of songs and similar "art" which is no more than an advertisement by another name? Or will they use weasle-words to justify broadcasting this stuff regardless?
David Hazel, Fareham, UK
Advertising is the absolute bane of Television. I never used to mind the half hour advertising slot as it was sometimes handy to grab a drink or something, but we seem to be constantly getting more adverts and less programs. When it gets to the stage that a program starts at 8.00pm the titles finish at 8.02pm and the first batch of adverts start at 8.12pm we really need to do something.
This can not be good for the consumers. We demand the 'real thing'.
Ben Hayes, Las Blackpool, England
Producers and scriptwriters should take a leaf out Repo Man's book (the 1984 film directed by Alex Cox) where products have generic names such as cans labelled FOOD or DRINK. No one wants to see already ubiquitous brand-names being lingered over that distract the viewer from the plot or from the setting of the film or programme.
It's probably inevitable that product placement will spread further on TV and other media, but I hope there will be restrictions on product placement in children's TV shows. Children are not always able to make reasoned judgments about products and would pester their parents to buy them unsuitable items, regardless of quality or value for money.
Harold Lee, London, England
The Clash once sang about the new groups 'turning rebellion into money'. Any rap artist that takes Macdonalds up on this appalling offer will be banging the final nails into the coffin of music as a challenge to authority and the status quo. I just hope the young people of today see through the cynical nature of all this and refuse to have anything to do with the artists that get involved.
Folk have always defined themselves and their status by their various accoutrements, TV drama should be free to present this. The problem comes when program makers are expected to positively endorse a product, the makers must remain impartial. Conversely, not all products come off better after a brush with popular culture, look at the Burberry-clad hordes on our high streets for instance.
Stephen , Sheffield, UK
It's not a bad idea, but it may become too much. Cornonation Street might be over-run with adverts - Vidal Sasson in Audrey's salon, Fosters in the Rovers and Norris may actually be able buy from the top shelf...
Lee Wallis, Northampton
Back in 1985-1987ish when I was about 7-8ish the Back to the Future films often featured Pepsi. I bought Pepsi because Marty McFly drank Pepsi, and I wanted to go Back to the Future too! Even today I prefer Pepsi to any other brand of cola. The younger the advertising agencies hit us, the more chance they have our loyalty for life.
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