Happy Birthday Product Placement!

It’s now exactly one year old – the P for “Product Placement” shown before British(-produced) television programmes that contain the controversial marketing form. Even with the “P”, the most controversial aspect remains the (perceived) covert nature of product placement, blurring entertainment with commercial messages. Take a look at the image below, taken from the UK version of Jersey Shore (called Geordie shore) – is the bottle there because the housemates like the drink? Or is it placed there because a company paid? Can you reasonably exercise your right to avoid a commercial message viewing the programme? Or would the integral nature of the product to the scene make this impossible?

geordie-pepperOf course, product placement is not new – and has been used since the 1920s in American radio serials – and later on in movies. Interestingly much of the research points to rather low effectiveness: While there are many anecdotal cases where products appearing in movies has been spectacularly successful – many seem to go unnoticed. One can argue that even if the appearance of products is relatively unnoticed it may still have a subtle effect. The Elaboration Likelihood Model can explain such an outcome where persuasion occurs via the peripheral route. And with advertising avoidance steadily increasing, while viewer involvement in programming remains (relatively) stable and given the potential longevity of re-runs – placement is increasingly popular alternative to “just advertising” (for example in the ITV series Coronation street).

A year ago, Ofcom wanted to “protect” viewers, especially children from unhealthy products – and so products that are high in fat, salt & sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, medicines, baby milk and weapons are not allowed on UK television. This would, presumably, mean that the Dr Pepper bottle in the screen shot above would have been placed there by pure coincidence – as it sugar content is very high. The problem is the presumably – as there is no way to find out which products are being inserted into the programme for money.

Further, researchers have pointed out that while the Ofcom code strictly prohibits commercial product placement to children, the vast majority of children’s viewing takes place during “adult” viewing time, as has previously been pointed out in relation to the ban on high-sugar, fat & salt advertising to children. Moreover, the placement of other unhealthy items, such as sunbeds, are not covered – nor are videogames, or online content – which young viewers are increasingly turning to online viewing in preference to “live tv” – at least in the US – and there is no reason why this would be different in the UK. In fact, outside of movies and tv programmes there are no restrictions on product placement – even if music for example is an other popular way to place products – even unhealthy ones like alcohol.

So what is the balance after a year of P? While there are no firm figures, the concerns are still there: How effective is a P displayed 3 seconds at the start of a programme? Especially when channel surfing? How many people even know what the P stands for? Existing research is contradictory – and more is needed, especially with regards to children and unhealthy products.  However, it seems clear from current research that OFCOM’ stated  objective to “reduce” harm is unlikely to be successful with the current regulations. So maybe lets have a toast to more data and more empirical research today?